France 2018 Road Scholar Tour: The Perigord’s Ancient Towns and Caves

Saint-Émilion is located north of the city of Bordeaux on limestone hills above the Dordogne River. There are many vineyards here producing wines that favor the soil and hillsides of this area. We are here to see an underground cathedral carved out of the limestone by monks.

This city is a very popular tourist destination and we are fortunate to be here in early spring and not on a weekend or holiday. Our bus parks at the city entrance that I marked on the map with an X. The streets are very narrow with only a few wide enough for smaller vehicles.

A panorama of the old city walls and dry moat. The Plane trees have had a trim which Sandrine says is done every few years. On into town we go passing Le Manoir, a former Jacobin church that is now a winery.

Inside, wine experts are judging the 2017 wines and their verdict of the best of the new wines will inform brokers as to what wines to invest in. We continue uphill, exclaiming over the old walls, cobblestone streets and amazing views.

The Church is in view.

We look around the small square while Sandrine goes to get a ring of keys to let us into the underground part of the church.

Down and down we go. How and why the monks excavated this hillside is still a question. Sarcophagi of ancient churchmen line some rooms and corridors. This cave is huge and empty. Only a few services are held here.

The sky is threatening rain but we are undaunted. Such great scenery to photograph.

Time for lunch! Sandrine has scouted the countryside for great little restaurants.

Wines of Bordeaux and salty dried sausage for starters. Back to the bus for a free afternoon and evening in the city.

Leaving Bordeaux and the Garonne River valley, the big bus heads for The medieval city of Sarlat. As we travel we hear a lecture on the history of the Perigord. We stop in Les-Eyzies for lunch. This is another town perched on the side of a limestone cliff that has been excavated into living and defensive spaces. Cro Magnon man was thought to live in this sort of cave place.

There is a replica of an ancient man on the cliff above the town. Some buildings are built into the hillside and above are lookouts carved into the cliff so enemies coming from the river below can be defended against.

Stopping at a truffle farm, we get a lecture about them, a demonstration on finding truffles and a taste. The black and white dog methodically searched under this tree. He stopped and pawed at the location then waited for his treat. Only tiny truffles are available now. Best picking is January and February.

The cave of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac “Cave of a Hundred Mammoths.” Water is running off the cave entrance. We take an electric train into the cave to see the mammoths painted over 140 centuries ago on the walls.

Our hotel in Sarlat had a beautiful breakfast/ bar room. We check in and Sandrine leads us on a walk to the medieval city in the center of Sarlat.

Sandrine leads us through a maze of narrow streets in the old town to the Cathedral Saint Sacerdos with its cloister and graveyard. This tower located above the church had a beacon for pilgrims and was a safe place to stay as they traveled through.

Sarlat is a very picturesque city and we can imagine the throngs of tourists here in the summer and especially on market days at the city center. Geese are raised for meat and fois gras so a statue of them is not strange.

Another nice meal in a pleasant spot then back to the hotel to unpack for a few days.

Wednesday is market day in Sarlat and we have part of the morning free to take it in. It is early but the market is bustling. We buy a few things to have for dinner tonight.

Later in the morning we depart for Vitrac on the Dordogne river where we enjoy a cooking demonstration and an excellent meal.

After an elegant meal we were back to the bus for a short hop to Domme which the literature says is a typical “bastide” from the 13th century on the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne valley. We have a lecture on bastides on the way. This bastide that is accessed by a small train that takes us up the steep hill overlooking the river. It is no wonder that people felt safe in this walled city.

oOn to Gageac and the scenic Dordogne River with flat bottom boats and another steep limestone cliff that we climb part way up.

It has been a rainy spring and the river is up. The ramp down to the river is closed. Shuhan, a fellow Road Scholar, takes our picture. Back to Sarlat and some wine in the bar and dinner in our room.

Art of the Perigord. Today we visit the site of the famous cave, Lascaux. To preserve the actual cave from algae and other human caused destruction, a replica of this prehistoric cave titled Lascaux 4 has been built near the original. The prehistoric artists depicted the creatures around them using pigments they found and then mixed the pigments with rendered fat. Using small oil lamps, they made art deep in these dark caves. These people did not live in the caves but there is evidence that bears hibernated in them.

This is a very popular attraction and even though it is early in the day, other groups are waiting their turn to go in. We wait for an English speaking guide.

A ramp takes us down to the entrance.

What motivated these artists and what was the meaning of their art and other symbols? Even the exact dates of this early art are not known. It was an amazing experience to visit this site.

The prehistoric people probably looked and dressed like this.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in at the National Prehistory Museum with its collection of artifacts from prehistoric sites in the Vézère Valley in Les-Eyzies. This prehistoric era was from 300,000 to 2,000 years ago.

Driving back to Sarlat we pass a Goose Ranch.

Dinner was at this cozy restaurant then a walk around the city lit up for night viewing. Tomorrow we visit St. Céré and visit the Jean Lurçat Museum in the morning and the cave, Gouffre de Padirac. Have a wine and cheese tasting and check into our hotel at Rocamadour.

I was interested to see fields of wheat, rape (canola), and alfalfa. Fruit such as apricots and nuts, chestnuts and walnuts, are grown here, too.

We stop at Martel, another stone walled city, visit the market square and church. I appreciate the fancy ironwork and painted doors along the street.

How can you not be in awe of such ancient spaces, rich with paintings and statues and carved doorways and pews. This town was also on one of the pilgrimage routes.

Now to the castle on the hill above the town that holds the Lurçat museum.

We leave the bus in the parking lot and climb. Jean Lurçat was an artist who created in many mediums. He decorated every space of his castle with the help of students and two artist wives. His most famous works were rendered in tapestries.

He covered the walls with boards, hung drawing paper and sketched, inserting instructions and paint colors like a paint by number kit, then sent it off to Aubusson to be made into a tapestry. He was very affected by WWII and his work reflects it.

Lunch here at Auberge de Mathieu. Our starter had dried duck breast, goose liver, caramelized onions, and good bread. Can’t say I liked the fois gras but I did like the espresso.

Off we go to the deep shaft at Gouffre de Padirac.

At the bottom, we walk to boats that take us along an underground river and to a huge cavern system with stalagmites and stalactites and flow stone.

We came back out the same way but took the elevator back to the top. No cave paintings in this cave. On to Rocamadour!

This hill town was a pilgrimage site in medieval times. The cathedral is at the cliff top with the Bishop’s residence below. A great stairway leads up from the town with a sign of the cross at each switchback. The faithful would kneel and pray at each site. We stop for photos and the bus takes us through a curving, one lane tunnel down to the town. We check in to the Beau Site Notre Dame Hotel. Our room is an interesting one that looks out onto the hillside. I can open the window, sit on the sill, listen to birds and smell the blossoms nearby.

Narrow pedestrian only streets and the grand staircase.

The following day our field trip is to the cave of Pech Merle which is older than Lascaux.

To preserve the cave, tour groups are limited to 40 minutes. A guide gives a good lecture explaining the cave drawings before we enter and he keeps close watch of the time while we are inside. There are ancient footprints that were left in mud that hardened to stone.

Lunch is at a neat place which was once a mill. The mill stream still runs by.

Creme brûlée for dessert.

Back at Rocamadour we stop on top, visit the cathedral and cave and walk down.

There is a black virgin in this church.

Dinner on our own this evening. We have a nice meal with Carol and Phyllis. I think I had a frittata and frites!

The next day has a longer drive along an expressway. The bus stops for a bathroom break at a convenience area. We are going to Albi today where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s works are on display in a museum dedicated to him. Albi is the town of his birth but he spent most of his short life in Paris.

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France April 2018 Road Scholar Tour: Bordeaux Wines and Vines

Twenty four Road Scholars and our leader, Sandrine, gather on a Friday afternoon to meet and find out a bit about each other. There were couples and singles traveling together and a few singles traveling alone. Most of us had been on a previous RS tour and some had been on many. I would guess that all but one were over 60 in age and retired. Most of us were from the States, two were from Canada, one a New Zealander and one an Italian living and working in the US. All of us were interested in travel and history. One was most interested in seeing the caves in the Perigord. Four spoke French. Sandrine went over the schedule for the week and answered questions, then we were free to rest until it was time to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

At the top, in front of our hotel entrance, it’s good for Sandrine to see how we navigate on the uneven cobblestone surface. Sandrine, is at the lower right in the lower photo.It looks like we have tried the wine and are ready to fill up again. The bread is always present in baskets and always chewy and delicious. No butter was ever on the table except for breakfast. When out in a group, we wear our Road Scholar ID badges that hang around the neck. There are pockets in this hanging badge for pens and small tablets or our phones if we don’t want to carry a purse or have no pockets in our clothing. Sandrine always counts us to make sure we are all present.

Back to the hotel and bed. We will take a walking tour of the city in the morning.

The day dawns grey and rain is in the forecast but we are prepared with jackets, hats and umbrellas.

This is a map of the city center, north is at the top. Our hotel is located with an X.

The Girondists monument is first. Sandrine tells us that the horse’s hooves are represented with claws because the river is muddy and they have to claw their way to make a stand on the riverbank.

A big mall in the round has been built where a crumbling convent once stood. Sandrine is going to purchase cannelles for us to eat with lunch. Dave is taking a picture of the arrays of cannelles and other pastries. There is a grocery store on the lower level of this shopping center. This place is circled on the map and called Grands Hommes.

In the top photo, Sandrine is telling us about the history of the city as she leads us to our next stop. She is speaking into a microphone. Each of us has a device called a “Quiet Vox” that is an audio receiver with an earphone that fits over our ear. She doesn’t have to shout and we don’t have to crowd around her to hear. The bottom two photos are of the Cathedral St. André. Beautiful stained glass, vaulted ceilings and impressive pipe organ. Below is a photo of the grand cathedral.

The building in this part of the city are constructed of a creamy stone with intricate carving.

Lunch and wine tasting and fresh cannelles. There was more salty meat on these charcuterie boards than most of us could eat. The cheese was great, a soft, medium and a hard cheese and always good bread. Beautiful vin rouge.

A visit to the Museum of Aquitaine and lecture on the history of the Bordeaux region then a walk down to the river to the water mirror and public buildings.

A small piece of a Roman wall tucked into a courtyard of a public housing building.

Another city gate near the river. This is Porte Cailhau.

A band busking in the rain near our hotel. Our first day is finished.

Up and on the motorcoach early, today we will visit the chateaux and vineyards of the Medoc region. While aboard we hear a lecture on Bordeaux wines, their history and their economic impact on the region.

Before leaving town, the bus stops in the harbor where Sandrine points out a relic from WWII. This concrete monstrosity was a Nazi U Boat base with twelve bays. It is a UNESCO heritage site today to commemorate the war. The city has plans to convert it into something useful. This area was the only part of the city that was bombed by the allies.

Now the harbor is home to houseboats and sailboats.

Sandrine points out a new wine museum and soccer stadium as we leave town.

We pass many impressive wineries and vineyards.

This is part of the huge Chateaux Margaux winery which we will visit today. Sandrine is explaining viniculture methods as we look around. As you can see, the vines have been trimmed back severely to encourage good growth and a better grape. Back to the bus to visit a small family winery where the owner shows us around and we have lunch.

The owner explains their operation And shows us the barrels of wine stacked in a thick walled old shed and coddled until the wine is ready to bottle.

Stainless steel vats where the pressed grapes are coddled into wine then decanted into vats for finishing. The remaining grape residue is sold for other purposes such as compost.

On to Chateau Margaux, a beautiful house that is used for events but not lived in. Our guide shows us the interior.

This is a cross section of the soil throughout the area showing how it drains and why this is good for the grapes that are grown here in the flat part of the Garonne valley.

The oak casks can be used three years then are repurposed but not used for aging wine. Large winery or small, the process is the same. However this winery has an automated grape sorting machine that uses the latest technology for choosing the perfect grape.

Two of the wines we tasted at Margaux.

The red wine changes color slightly as it ages taking on a more orang-y cast. The wines that are produced here are aged at least a year and the grand cru varieties are sold to collectors and could be kept for many years or decades.

Sheep are used on this working estate to keep the grass clipped. A few lambs were just born causing us to say, “A-h-h-h.” We were lucky that this tour was on the shoulder of the busy season so we didn’t have to compete with lots of other bus tours and tourists in the towns. Back to Bordeaux and dinner at a local restaurant. Tomorrow a trip to Saint- Émilion. That will be in the next blog post!

France April 2018: We Arrive in Bordeaux

Our much anticipated Road Scholar trip to France began with a long airplane ride from Phoenix through Detroit and Amsterdam and finally the city of Bordeaux. We arrived a day early to get acclimated.

A wine bottle at the curb on arrival at the airport was evidence of the importance of wine in France.

Our hotel, Bordeaux Bayonne Etche Ona, was located in the city center on a narrow historic street just off a main street, Cours de l’Intendance. Since we arrived at the noon hour, our room was not ready but they were happy to store our luggage while we looked around the city for a bit.

The hotel was near a big plaza called the Grands Hommes where streets and tramways intersect and the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel is located. Across the plaza is the Opera National de Bordeaux, a very impressive building. Dave stopped in front of the hotel to get his bearings on Google Maps. You can see the statues atop the opera house in the background.

The plaza at night with the Intercontinental Hotel lit up. It was a cool evening but the French people love to sit at cafe tables and sip espresso and chat.

We had reservations for dinner within walking distance of the hotel but we were ready early so walked through the neighborhoods past a small garden at Place Gambetta.

Racines restaurant with chef David Gallacher opened it’s doors at 7:30pm which is the normal hour for the evening meal service. They were booked for the evening and we were lucky to have reservations.

This was a lovely haute-cuisine meal accompanied by wine, wonderful bread and espresso with dessert. The French often start an evening meal with an aperitif of Cassis or Champagne and end with espresso after dessert. Sitting next to us were two Asian-looking young women who were American born and working as lawyers in New York City. They were from Houston and San Diego. We had a nice visit.

We walked back to the hotel, entrance just below the lighted blue sign, and fell into bed.

The next morning we took breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast bar included everything you could imagine, including an egg coddling water bath machine that I didn’t get up the courage to try. Dave got his usual granola and yogurt so he was happy.

The breakfast room was simple but elegant.

Since our group tour was not to begin until later in the day, we had some time to explore.

The Monument aux Girondists in the Place des Quinconces commemorates the French Revolution. There is a bronze rooster at the base. The rooster is a symbol of the French spirit. The Quinconces (the name comes from the staggered rows of trees on each side of this space) is a large area near the riverfront where festivals are held.

From here we walked to a nice garden.

It is spring in Bordeaux. Dave is standing beside a topiary basket filled with flowers.

Outside and inside the Saint Louis des Chartrons church and to the Garrone riverwalk.

The riverfront has been completely refurbished since the city realized that tourism dollars drove the economy here. There is a walkway all along the river that people throng to especially on nice days like this one.

The Place de La Bourse is mirrored on the water feature called the Water Mirror which emits a mist that kids love to play in and then it fills with an inch or two of water becoming the mirror.

River cruise ships can be seen docked along the quai in the distance and in the other direction the Pont de Pierre bridge which is getting new piers to keep it from sinking.

Dave stands in front of Porte Cailhau, one of the old city gates from when Bordeaux had walls. We walked along the street named Cours du Chapeau Rouge, Red Hat Street, now a pedestrian avenue of shops and galleries. Uphill all the way to our hotel near the Grands Hommes plaza and it’s Carousel.

I’m sure we stopped for lunch somewhere but I have no recollection of it. We are scheduled to meet with our Road Scholar group this afternoon and go to dinner this evening. Back to the hotel to freshen up.