London Diary – A French Holiday! (Part 1 Sarlat and Dordgone)

Ever After is one of my favorite movies. As to why, it will take another whole essay to work it out properly, although I had tried to deal with the subject, as a first attempt, in my earlier post, “Why do we love Cinderella?” For now, it suffices to say that it is how I learnt of Sarlat, a commune in Dordgone Department of Aquitaine Region and home to a breathtakingly beautiful medieval town.

Since the brief first visit several years before, staying for one night at La Lanterne, a B&B in the heart of the historic town just paces to Cathedrale Saint-Sacerdos, I had longed to go back. The fairytale suggestive tableaux of limestone houses, labyrinth of cobbled streets and wrought iron street lamps lingered in my mind and tantalized.

The moment has finally come, we flew to Bordeaux via Paris then drove to Sarlat. After Sarlat, we had a few day in Bordeaux. So many enchanting places packed in these areas, the week long holiday over Easter Weekend was lovely as can be and went by all too quickly.

Font de Gaume

Vezere Valley is an extraordinary area where a number of remarkable prehistoric caves have been discovered. On route to Sarlat from Bordeaux, we visited Font de Gaume, one of such prehistoric caves, 20 minutes to Sarlat. It is famed for the colored painting found on the cave walls.

We bought timed tickets from the small office next to the parking lot by the road. The entrance to the cave is in the middle of the hill, about a 5 minute climb from the office. It turned out to be a guided tour which lasted one hour. Alas, it was in French and needless to say we missed out a lot understanding very little if not none of what was said. In addition, although for obviously good reason, the lighting inside was so dim that adding on a narrow laser pointer by the guide it was still very difficult for me to see and I could only make out a vague contour of the paintings. The cave itself however is stunning, long, narrow and low in most part, it opens up at close to the end point with a soaring ceiling overhead. No photo allowed inside of course.

 

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Les Eyzies

Les Eyzies is a small, pretty village several minutes south of Font de Gaume and home to France’s National Museum of Prehistory. Built around some caves in the middle of a limestone cliff, the museum is most atmospheric.

We booked an hour long English guided tour which turned out to be for just the two of us. The museum owns a staggering number of prehistoric artifacts. Our young guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, he did for us an engaging and interesting tour.

We had lunch at Café de la Marie at the foot of the museum. It turned out unexpectedly and exceptionally good. Menu was in French and we were doing the guess work when my neighbor’s plate arrived at her table. So I asked our waiter about it and thereby learnt of the Menu du Jour, Set menu of the day, which was a 3 course meal of salad, main course that is a plait of fried chicken, accompanying potatoes and vegies, and desert, all that for €10. The plait was simple yet so rich and tasty, divine’s the word for it, they’ve got some killer sauce for it.

 

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Sarlat

So we were back to Sarlat, expetantly. Sarlat is as beautiful, drawing oohs and aahs from us. As the night fell and the street lamps turned on, I noticed they were electrical. Was the dim and warm glow of flickering oil or gas lamps pure my imagination? Or have the lamps been updated since my last visit?

We had such a memorable dinner on our previous visit at Le Bistro, which is just paces from Cathedrale Saint-Sacerdos, we went back to it for dinner on the first night. I had again Confit of Conard, which was a plait of fried duck leg with sautéed potatoes, mushrooms and garnishing salad. And it was as superb. My husband tried a salad with duck gizzard that came with his equally superb meal, and it surprised him, in a very good way.

You’ll find ducks, geese and foie gras specialties of the Dordgone and Perigord area and loved by the locals. As Sarlat’s famed market opened again on that beautiful sunny Saturday, it was as colorful and flavorful, and fun, fun, fun! Among many others, you’ll find Confit of Conard and Cassoulet in cans, variety of fromage ie cheese, of sausages, of olives. I sniffed Hulie de Noix ie walnut oil that was intoxicatingly aromatic and sampled chocolat that was equally divine.

Home away from home this time is Les Cordelier, a B&B also run by a couple of English expats. It is a beautiful house with spacious, charming rooms, overlooking a garden square, and excellently located. I found on the book shelve outside our room a few Rick Steves’ guide books and guess what Les Cordelier is featured in them. A nice little touch that made it a tad homier was the little snack room where you can help yourself to water, beverage, even a few beer, fruits, cookies, and candies or make your own cup of tea or coffee.

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Chateaus on River Dordgone

In a small radius of Sarlat, you’d find more than a thousand chateaus. 20 minutes south west of Sarlat, are Chateau Castlenaud and Chateau Beynac. The day we visited these chateaus was nothing short of magic.

The two chateaus, opposite of each other, tower over River Dordgone, a river starting out of Massif Central and ending at River Gironde just north of Bordeaux. Chateau Castlenaud occupies the hill top on the river bank at a point where the southwest going river makes a sharp 90 degree turn to point straightly northwards. Chateau Beynac looms over a sheer limestone cliff situated north of the river where the river makes another sharp 90 degree turn to resume its west going course. Mighty and imposing, these two chateaus had been staring down each other for centuries. During the Hundred Year War, they were rivals when Chateau Castlenaud was in hands of the English, and Chateau Beynac, the French. Nowadays, they are friendly attractions that fulfill tourists’ fantasy.

Equally magical are the villages surrounding the castles. For both chateaus, you can drive up to a parking lot just paces from the chateau entrance. Alternatively, and better to me, is a climb up on foot from the bottom of the hills. In any case, stroll through the villages as far as you can, be surprised at every turn by the picturesque cobble stone lanes and limestone houses and stunning views of the surrounding valley and river.

Both chateaus are quite matched in grandeur, defense power and strategic location. As for the villages, while both are equal in beauty, Le Beynac is larger. Chateau Beynac is another filming location for Ever After. Having visited the chateau last time, we were able to focus on the village this time, and the mission was complete.

 

Chateau Castlenaud

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Chateau Beynac

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Driving around the river in a circular route between the two chateaus, we spotted another two grand chateaus which we could not name.

Chateau Hautefort

Chateau Hautefort is about an hour north of Sarlat. At some point on route to it, I got a fliting glimpse of a massive structure. Shortly after, we passed a sign that we guessed to be something about a scenic route, subsequently made a U-turn and switched to it. Not long into it, that massive structure reappeared, an incredibly grand, beautifully French chateau with two round towers came into focus. We were looking at Chateau Hautefort’s southern facade. What an imposing chateau, and indeed fit for a king, it is the king’s chateau in Ever After.

 

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