A little trip to southwest France

As much for my own records as to provide advice, I thought I’d do a little summary of our August 2014 trip:

We’d decided probably a year before that France would be our destination, but where?

So many places to see in the country. S. proposed Alsace, or the northwest or Bordeaux, and in the end I chose Bordeaux as a starting point as it seemed the most exotic of places to me: it would be touched by the warmth of summer in August and offered great wine and food.

Planning was a combination of whim and design. We built our itinerary around a few restaurants, a few meetings with friends, and my desire to cross the border into Spain and see the Guggenheim in Bilbao and San Sebastian. Guidebooks didn’t help us. The ones I found seemed to only focus one particular area, and our destinations really seemed to cross over various departaments and regions. Everything was chosen to be within a few hours of driving from each other.

Here’s what it looked like:

  • 2-4 August, Paris, to settle in and eat at a few good restaurants and ride around arrondissements we were unfamiliar with on vélibs, the free bikes. Train to Bordeaux.
  • 4-6 August, Bordeaux, which surprised me how beautiful and easy it was, an amazing old town, filled with great restaurants, and a free bike scheme!
  • 6 August, day trip out of Bordeaux to try to see some famous vineyards like Château Lafite Rothschild or Château Margaux and see the Arcachon Dune. This was our only real day of failure during the trip. We thought we could brave it without the satellite navigation (satnav) and basically couldn’t find anything. We arrived at one of the Rothschild estates during their long mid-day break. We got stuck in wall-to-wall summer traffic and couldn’t even get out to the dune. We made up for the frustrating day with a wonderful dinner though.
  • With a few days in both Paris and Bordeaux, we stayed in AirBNB apartments, both modest, with great views, and charmingly decorated by their owners, both young stylish French women. The only challenge was lugging our luggage up 4 or 5 flights of stairs… and the beds weren’t great quality.
  • 7 August, S. had heard that the area around Perigueux was beautiful and how right he was. We drove and wandered through beautiful old towns, such as St-émilion Castillon and Perigueux, visited an abandoned fortress, the Chateau du Gurson, and ended up at the absolutely stunning Chateau de Lalande near Saint-Emilion, our second favourite accommodation of the trip.
  • 8 August, more lovely towns in Perigord, and ending up in Les Eyzies, mostly because it was a convenient place to meet Emma, a college friend, the next day for kayaking on the Dordogne. We saw some amazing castles in this area, and the ones on the banks of the Dordogne were particularly stunning. One had fantastic topiary! Les Eyzies was a strange place. It’s where everyone hangs out to go to caves with primitive drawings and as neither of us had any desire to see these or the caves (which I hear are quite impressive), the place felt a bit false and commercial.
  • 9-10 August, kayaking on the Dordogne couldn’t have been a better way to catch up with a friend. It was lovely, beautiful and inexpensive to do a 4 hour kayak. We chose a part of the river less populated, which was gorgeous, though I think another time I’d like to do the part of the river with more castles on it.
  • We headed that evening into Albi, which had a completely different feel, one of the red towns, with red and pink brick, and a lovely river running through it. On our way there, we did a quick stop at a museum in Les Arques dedicated to the artist Ossip Zadkine, who’d moved there because Paris was too expensive. Then Cahors, which looked pretty fun and lively, and we did a wine tasting (of Cahors’ famous black wines, so named for how dark red they are, made up mainly of Malbec grapes). It was perfect.The department of Lot was very different, rolling hills and eventually dramatic steep cliffs which reminded us of driving through Switzerland and Northern Italy.
  • Staying two nights in a place was really our preference so we didn’t have to check out and then check in again, though doing that did allow us to see more places, none of which we regret. A whole day in Albi was great, going to their covered market (with amazing cheese!), visiting the Toulouse-Latrec museum, and a lovely dinner with S.’s friend, daughter and son-in-law. On our way out to the next destination, we stopped in Cordes-en-Ciel, this crazy medieval city high on a hillside, had a wander through Toulouse, and checked out Pau.
  • 11-12 August. Oloron St Marie probably wouldn’t be my choice for a place to stay, it seemed without particular charm, and we missed going to the Lindt Chocolate Factory which seemed a prime attraction… but staying here allowed us to go on the most magnificent hike in the Pyrenees, just south of here, up some harrowing roads by car, to the base of a park. Ah, the lakes, the horses, the cows and their cowbells! Lac de Bious-Artìgues in the Vallée d’Ossau. It was a surprisingly hard hike, but well worth it.
  • 13 August was visiting my friends in Le Gers (stopping at a tower on the way in Bassoues). In Gers, we saw their new summer house, and then had a nice lunch in Jegun. In the afternoon we went to Lectoure and wandered on the main street and into a store with local delicacies which was the best of the trip with its selections of armagnac and foie gras (“La Boutique Fleurons de Lomage”. For dinner, we’d chosen Le Florida as a destination both to eat and stay. It was a wonderful and faultless meal, but the bigger surprise was this amazing luxurious accommodation in a very stylish room with a spa! And more (see my review…). A great stay and our favourite accommodation of the trip.
  • I would’ve stayed here another night if we’d had a chance and used it as a base to visit more small towns in the vicinity. The inspiration for visiting this area was a New York Times article that talked about the area being relatively underdeveloped for tourism, but offering some particular culinary delights in a pastoral setting.
  • 14 August was another New York Times day. This article talked about how unusual the wines are from Irouléguy and I thought it would be fun to see Basque country in France. Accommodation was a bit hard to come by in the bigger city of St Etienne de Baigorry, so we found a charming family-run hotel in Banca, and checked in after doing a fantastic wine tasting in St Etienne. The colours of the window shutters changed from their pale blues of the Gers and around the Dordogne to brick red here, Basque language signage appeared, and it felt like another completely different part of the country.
  • 15-16 August, The drive the next day over the Pyrenees into Spain was absolutely stunning. My god. Scenery! We arrived in San Sebastian on its busiest day of the year, which was a bit overwhelming but settled into the crazy, buzzy energy of Spain, watched fireworks that were part of a festival two nights in a row, ate stunning pintxos (tapas) and on our second day did a day trip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim which was wonderful.
  • 17 August. We drove through San Jean de Pied and Biarritz, two packed seaside holiday locations, just to have a look on our way up to the amazing Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie les Bains, a three-star Michelin restaurant and a perfect way to crown our trip. Lunch was three hours, at least, and we were in somewhat of a food coma afterwards matched with the delirium of such a wonderful experience.
  • 18 August, our final night was based on an expressed like for Sauternes, the sweet wine, by S. We found an amazing little chateau, were upgraded to a huge room, and got a tasting and a lengthy and interesting explanation on how the tiny area produces the only yearly natural sweet wine (rather than deliberately infected by botrytis as with Australian dessert wines), a “gift from god”, the fellow explained. We watched the sunset over rows and rows of grapevines that night, our last before we took the back from Bordeaux the next morning and a quick overnight in Paris…

It really was a magical trip, in an amazing region. If you want any advice, or have any questions about the trip, please ask!

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