A Damp Séjour in Aquitaine and Lot
I was not to know that the weather would turn out to be damp and gloomy when I excitedly start planning the trip. My husband tells me that he can add one day to his four-day weekend and would be happy to go anywhere, as long as he gets to drive there. I have 10 days to plan. I peer at Google Maps, looking for somewhere not too far away. But my eyes keep returning to a region on which I have had my eyes for some time. Its far; is it worth so many hours in the going and coming? Doesn’t the region require two weeks to do justice? It does but I convince myself that long holidays don’t come along often so I must make the best of what we have. I quickly decide on a hotel in Perigueux and make a booking. It turns out to be a decent but boring choice but we do enjoy an excellent breakfast every morning.
Thursday 17 May 2012 : Drive to Perigueux, seeing the volcanic region in Auvergne on the way.
We succeed in hitting the road by 7:30 am. We reach Clermont-Ferrand after a few hours and stop for lunch.
Today is a public holiday and the city has an abandoned look. There are a few restaurants open in this square in front of the Cathedral. The tourist office is also in the same square; we drop in to get a regional map and a recommendation for a small detour.
This is volcanic country with a number of extinct volcanos dotting the landscape. I had hoped to drive up Puy-de-Dôme, the most visited site in this region. Unfortunately the road is closed, we can only climb it on foot (1.5 hrs one way, we are told) but we can’t afford the time.
Instead we take a drive through the countryside. I am much taken by the beauty of this pretty little village called Orcival. The grey colour scheme is repeated in many of the villages we pass. Is this slate then? Is there a connection with volcanic rocks? Whatever it is, it is beautiful against the green of the trees.
A viewpoint-stop gives us this stunning landscape. A plaque explains how the two volcanic formations in the middle were formed. It is in French and I slowly and painstakingly translate it for my husband. Don’t retain much of it though! After that we drive to Mont Dore and thanks to atrociously poor navigation (mine) and a disbelief of the GPS (which was right!) we are lost for a while before finding our way back to the correct freeway.
It is a long and boring drive on the freeway again. We are glad to check in at the hotel and then stretch our legs in the city. The weather is grey, the city seems closed and abandoned on this feast-day so we have an early dinner and call it a night. I’ll say it once and not repeat myself for every meal; France is the PITS for vegetarians, especially small town France. My husband was ecstatic gobbling up carnivorous delights while I faced torture-by-mouth at every meal. Sigh!
Friday 18 May 2012 : Bordeaux and St.Emilion
We wake early as I want to make it to Bordeaux before the walking tour which starts at 10:00. I don’t even try to make an advance booking which is a mistake. Though we are there by 9:30 the walking tour is full. Instead we take a petit-train tour and its not a bad way to get a quick understanding of the layout of the city. However, it is hard to take pictures. At the end of the tour, we pick-up a walking-tour map (Eu 1) from the Tourist Office and walk around the town again. The main points of interest are easily walkable. We start at the Opera square above. The Grand-Théâtre at the left was built in the 18th century.
The Place Bey-Berland with the bell tower of the same name. The tower was built in 1440-1450. You can see a glimpse of the Cathedral and the town hall at the right.
The Saint André Cathedral is in the Gothic style. It takes it’s name from the 11th century though there is evidence of a religious edifice here from the 9th century. The Cathedral is closed for a few hours each afternoon and unfortunately we cannot visit it inside.
The Palais Rohan, completed in 1784, is the City Hall of Bordeaux. It also houses the Art Museum which we don’t visit.
The Grosse-Cloche (The Big Bell) was the bell tower of the old City Hall. Built in the 15th century over the 13th century Gate of Saint-James, this was part of the famous pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago. I remember Linda my friend who walked a good bit of the Camino de Santiago; she would have been interested to see this.
We then stop for a meal at the Place Fernand Lafargue which, quite inexplicably, seemed to be the Thai-quarter, given its three Thai restaurants! What is the connection between the Thais and the Bordelais? What a mystery!
The Porte Cailhau was part of the ramparts of the city of Bordeaux. In the 10th century, the palace used to be next to it. Fires ravaged older gates, the current structure is from the 19th century. We pass through it to the riverside promenade. My husband must examine the paint job the ship is undergoing so we walk up to it to ensure it is all done correctly.
The Palais de la Bourse is a beautiful 18th century structure and I am very happy with the perfect reflection in the miroir d’eau ! We are satisfied with our visit to Bordeaux and make our way back to the car.
Our next destination is St. Émilion. Bordeaux has taken most of the day and we arrive rather late at St.Émilion. Its a day of petit-trains for us; we take one for a little tour of the surrounding wineries including a stop for visiting the cellars and tasting at one of them.
It is not a riveting tour, but we enjoy it well enough. The lady guide speaks in French but it is too fast for me. On my request, she repeats the information in English and even that needs a lot of concentration for me to understand. This winery is a very small operation but is surrounded by very large acreages.
St Émilion is quite charming and we wander around for a short while but it is getting late and we still have a long drive back to our hotel so we don’t stay long.
Saturday 19 May 2012 : Rocamadour, Gouffre de Padirac, Carennac, Marlat
Our drive to Rocamadour takes quite a while as some roads are closed and we have to take detours. The first glimpse itself is stunning; the village looks so much part of the landscape that it feels as if it has grown out of the rocks. In case you can’t spot it in the picture above, its the grey cliff to the right.
The carpark is in the gorge and we find another petit-train which takes us up and will bring us back. We needn’t have, the climb would have been easy enough. We are dropped at the village which is very tourist-oriented with souvenir shops and restaurants at every door.
We decide to climb up to the church instead of taking the elevator (paid). It is an easy climb and the views from above are stunning.
This is what you look at right from the top. We visit the Notre Dame church with its black Madonna and then make our way back down to our car.
Our next stop is the Gouffre de Padirac. This is an extraordinary site and we both enjoy our visit very much. Elevators and stairs take us down 103 metres to a cave and an underground river. We are then taken on a boat ride of about one km. From there we are guided in the cave system seeing extraordinarily beautiful stalagmites and stalactites reflecting in blue-green pools of water. Absolutely stunning. Unfortunately no photography is allowed; you can see pictures in their site here. And yes, it does look exactly like in the pictures! There are 300+ steps to be climbed during the tour though we take the elevator to come out. It has been stressful on our poor damaged knees but I don’t care. It has been a marvellous visit.
After having lunch at a cafe, we head to Carennac, a very pretty village on the banks of Dordogne. It is deserted except for a few tourists but very charming nonetheless. There is very limited parking, I wonder how people manage in the peak season?
We peep into the 12th century church but don’t spend much time. We have had a long day and it is time to find some dinner and then head back to the hotel.
Sunday 20 May 2012 : Perigueux, Montignac, Lascaux II, Sarlat, Domme
After breakfast, we walk to the Cathedral of Perigueux, a 5 min distance from our hotel. It is Sunday morning and there is someone playing the organ. I have a weakness for music in cathedrals. It resonates so beautifully and seems such a perfect match to the surrounds.
We then take a 10 min walk through the streets of the old town. It is charming but deserted. In fact Perigueux has not seemed lively on any day so far. The truth is, much as I don’t want to be swamped by fellow tourists, I do like the hustle and bustle of residents going about their business. And there is none of that here.
We then drive to Montignac where we buy tickets for Lascaux II. We are there by 10:30 but the next English tour is at 3, quite a few hours away.
We don’t spend much time in Montignac though it has a pretty setting beside the river.
The timing of the tour has somewhat muddled up our day. We decide to visit Sarlat while we wait for our tour. Sarlat is very charming and totally geared towards tourism. The three ducks you see in the picture above are a symbol of the city. Today is a very damp day still there are a number of tourists around.
It starts raining but it is not cold. I wish we had come here on a nice sunny day. Still we enjoy a nice wander. We stop at the market and buy some local produce to take back home. This whole region is famous for its duck products, like fois gras , but also for walnuts. We find a restaurant which even has an English menu but we are running out of time. So we head off to the Lascaux caves.
I had tried very naively to book a visit to the Font de Gaume caves a week before we travelled. They replied that they were booked out for the next four months!! So it had to be my second choice, the Lascaux II caves, which are a reproduction of the original Lascaux caves a few hundred metres away. The original caves are not open to public. I was disappointed before going; I wanted to see the real thing, not some reproduction. I was afraid of some garish-make believe to extract tourist dollars. But in fact, I was totally wrong! Lascaux II is quite awe inspiring. The reproduction has been done meticulously and beautifully over a 20 year period and there is no feeling of a tourist-trap at all! As an artist, I find the visit to be a surreal experience, a link with the artists who lived 17,000 years ago. Click here for a very good virtual visit. Note: Photography is not allowed, this is an image from the web.
Today has not been such an efficient day. We drive back past Sarlat to Domme. This little cliff-top village is said to have fantastic views. And it does. There are only limited parking spots but this is not high season and we find one easily enough.
This then is the viewpoint we have come for. It is a truly stunning view and I enjoy standing and gazing over the countryside.
After Domme we go for a drive along the Dordogne admiring the many beautiful villages along the way. We stop at Beynac for dinner and that is the end of the day and the end of the trip. The next day is just a long drive back home, it is also the wettest. I am rather happy to be back home in sunny Switzerland!