If there is one part of the world I could happily call home, it is here in the South of France and no …. it’s not just the appeal of the wine (although it’s a pretty good reason to pull up stumps!)
The luscious region has a bounty of pleasures on offer to satisfy the taste buds, as well as all the other senses, without feeling like it’s trying to impress anyone. And the people (yes, forget all stereotypes) are part of the reason I’d go back in a heartbeat.
While Bordeaux is the region’s capital and beautiful at that, it is the glistening Dordogne River which snakes its way through a fertile green landscape, littered with quaint, picturesque villages and Chateaux, which would steal anyone’s imagination.
We happily camped for a summer along this beautiful river, kayaking up and down the waterways, lazing about on its shoreline, sampling a bit of history and eating and drinking (unreservedly) our way through each village.
It’s hard not to feel very French here, if you live as the locals do. Every morning, as the church bells chimed, a steady stream of locals religiously marched off to the Boulangerie to retrieve their crusty baguette and still warm croissants, as piously as a Churchgoer taking communion.
The local baker would even deliver these warm bundles of freshly baked goods to the holiday park we were staying in, by the river. I remember then thinking ‘these French are my kind of people. They’ve got their priorities in order’. We were there after all to eat, drink and be merry.
A few days into our stay, we were keen to locate and sample some wines, this was France after all. We started out hopeful and followed some road signs…in French, that was our first mistake, which led us to a very rural and ram shackled farm only to be greeted by barking dogs and a disgruntled farmer who naturally saw us for the naissances we were to become. With phrase book in hand and a hefty determination, we endeavored to sample their wine.
As naive tasters, but polite tourists, we agreed to purchase 1…..bottle, only to find out later that most wineries, no matter how small, sell by the case load.
Needless to say the look of apathy on this man’s face along with our own awkwardness, was enough to help us walk briskly back to our hired hatchback and drive away, without daring to look back).
So having ‘struggled’ the previous day, we sensibly asked the owner of the holiday park we were staying at, if he could recommend any wineries to visit. Obligingly, he offered us the address and directions to a friend of his who owned a small but growing winery.
After passing several grand estates, my hopes were high of avoiding another wine tasting debacle. But eventually we ended up arriving at a humble cottage, happily situated among vast rows of vines. Philippe and his wife Mylene welcomed us with open arms, as if we were known friends and beckoned us into their tiny kitchen to join them and some friends, for a drink.
Their English was limited, our French was crap, but we all gave it a crack and meaningful conversation, littered with giggles, flourished. Funny how food and wine can breakdown any barriers.
Philippe had only just come back from Switzerland that morning, delivering some wine and meat to his brother and in exchange he had received some fresh, rather foul smelling cheese. But, wow did it taste good! With glass in hand, he proceeded to generously offer up his wine, as if we were guests beginning a dinner party.
We talked, laughed and ate … a lot. He showed us his wine vats and cellar and photographs of his son. I know the wine was nice, (we ended up buying 2 cases) but that is not what made that afternoon memorable. It was the generous company of strangers, the sights and smells surrounding the table and the unexpectedness of that afternoon.
But, the countryside obviously has no shortage of vineyards and historical Chateaux to stroll through, if you’re feeling like hitting the tourist trail. The well-known village of St-Emilion is surrounded by vineyards originally established by the Romans back in the 2nd century.
Almost any position in the village will you afford you with a dreamy view, of stepping stone terracotta roofs, the ancient church tower steeple, or the uniform rows of lush green vines. I am happy to confirm that its charm is sure to be enough to convert even the most reluctant romantic (my husband actually proposed to me here).
Similarly, the medieval village of Beynac-et-Cazenac is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and strikingly unique villages I have ever seen. I think a few audible Wow’s escaped my lips when I first saw it. Set literally into the limestone cliff face which rises above the banks of the Dordogne River, it is grand in scale and perfect in its own fairy-tale fashion. The village was even used as a location for the filming of ‘Chocolat’.
Some of the local’s homes are actually built into the cliff-face (an amazing feet of architecture no doubt) and a steep walk up into the village square will see you arrive at the grand 12th century castle and reward you with a stunning view of the Dordogne River below.
But, by the time you make it back down to the river’s edge, you will have worked up a deadly appetite. Happily, there is no end to the delectable array of food on offer in this region.
If you head into any nearby village, weekly markets showcasing the best local seasonal produce, put all your senses on alert; sweet, juicy figs, olives swimming in an array of marinades, soft pungent cheeses, sticky sugary pastries, smoked freshwater fish, cured legs of pork …..it’s a sumptuous scene to be savoured (I’m talking food heaven here!). The best we found was in the stunning town of Sarlat.
And, when in France (do as the locals do and all that) you have to sample the region’s speciality, Foie gras. Yes, Duck liver pate is considered somewhat of a delicacy and whether you agree with the processes involved in making it or not, there is no denying it tastes pretty good on a crunchy baguette, while taking in a view of the picturesque Dordogne River.
It is a beautiful part of the world and one that holds many fond memories for me. As with travel anywhere, you have to truly sample it all, to get the most out of it and the stunning Dordogne region beckons you to do just that.