Sun and vineyards - a French affair
Four cancelled holidays later and what seemed like an endless period of numbness and uncertainty, we upped our courage and hit the road; destination: the South West of France.
Unsure about whether the French would let us in given the national rule advising voluntary quarantine, we jumped in the car and two hours later, we were looking at England from the other side of the channel. We had made it - we were in Calais.
A few hours later, we reached our first destination, a small town not far from the beautiful Giverny, home to Monet’s lilies. We spent the first two nights at the charming Domaine de la Corniche, a boutique hotel once home to King Leopold of Belgium and his Romanian born, French mistress and an hour's drive from Paris.
After a few days of unparalleled views, gourmet cuisine and comfy large rooms, we hit the road again and six hours later we reached our home away from home in a small village in the old Perigord region of France (currently known as the Dordogne department).
We were greeted by our lovely hosts, Alastair and Sue whose hospitality was the only topped by their passion for the area and the unbeatable romantic countryside vistas - no wonder the area inspired many paintings and novels throughout the centuries!
Their small rental cottage, La Porcherie is a place where time stood still and generations of winemakers continue to take pride in the prized regional wines, including a local favourite - the nut wine! But enough of that; here's the cottage...
Over the next few days, we drove lazily through sleepy French villages, guided by the sun and the occasional deer. We (over)indulged in foie gras, which is one of the main delicacies of the area, and awed at architectural marvels such as gardens and castles.
A few notable ones include Castlenaud, a carefully reconstructed 12th-century medieval fortress overlooking the crystalline Dordogne river, the elegant 17th-century Hautefort castle once graced by royal British visitors and the fairytale-like Monbazilliac, a famed chateau sheltering thousands of bottles of sweet white nectar, bearing its name (and thought to originate back from Roman times). And yes, the entire area (with its capital at Bergerac) is famous for its wines, which means you are never more than a few miles away from a hidden winemaker, probably in at least their sixth or seventh generation.
As for the fortified towns and villages around, some of the prettiest ones (according to an official French ranking - Les Beaux Villages meaning beautiful villages), you can get lost on the streets on Monpazier, Issigeac, Eymet or wander the slightly bigger towns of Sarlat and finally Bergerac. And there’s many more to chose from!
Finally, you wouldn’t be in France if you didn’t visit some formal gardens like the suspended Marqueyssac (wobbly) gardens and chateau often graced by blue peacocks, or the lesser-known Jardins de Cadiot a Carlux, a symphony of herbs and flowers set to enchant your senses.
Other activities you can try are kayaking on the Dordogne river or exploring some of the oldest caves known to mankind and a mystery by their very existence adorned with multicoloured paintings that survived several millennia.
After a restful week, it was time to head back and prepare to self-quarantine in the UK. But first, a final stopover at the beautiful Chateau de Beauvois, a restored French castle turned hotel and stop for one final castle in the Loire valley at the breathtaking Chateau de Villandry.
Overall, the South West of France is what one might call a diamond in the rough; not aiming for perfection like Bordeaux, yet just as idyllic in its rawness. After all, it is hard not to be convinced by this the charms of this truffle and walnut paradise. Until next time...