Leaving London for our travels gave us the option of crossing over the pond for a long overdue stop in France. Whilst I’ve been gathering experience travelling throughout Europe I had yet to visit La Republique. France could easily been defined as the heart of Europe. With its size and prevalence in the continent, and its rich cultural standing, it is definitely a strong contender for the title ( especially now that the UK has put themselves out of contention ). But now the hard questions – where and what do you do in a country with so much to offer?
Of course you must first go to Paris! No? See the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre!? But not before eating a croissant on Champs-Elysées. Or not! In fact non of these things capture my imagination and we didn’t do any of them. That to me is not the France I wanted to see but rather something that forms an image of a Disney World for adults. Watching the Tour de France had painted a much different attraction that I wanted to see – the small towns, narrow roads and the abundant chateaux that dot the country side. Disney World could wait.
Our visit to France had been motivated by seeing a childhood friend who runs a summer restaurant in the Dordogne area of southwestern France. A flight into small the Bergerac airport and we were there. We’d rented a car, almost a must, and drove an hour along ever-increasingly smaller and smaller roads to the village of Saint Léon sur Vézère, or simply Saint Leon for convenient sake.
It’s important to note that these small roads are a norm in France. As commented by a guy we met on a train to Italy, Mario from Australia originally from France. He and his wife had given up on their rental car plans and opted to bus around the country. They couldn’t handle the unrelenting narrowness of the roads BUT did comment on how nobody ever lost their temper when backing up or manoeuvring to get past each other. Its just how it goes – c’est la vie.
We hadn’t been in Saint Leon ( population of 54, so we were told ) more than two hours, and we found ourselves lying in the sun by the river, trying to imagine that we had woken up that morning in a typical grey London that seemed worlds away. Now just because we were in the country side of of France didn’t mean that it was all relaxing – drinking champaign and eating – there is much to see and do in the region. Its important not to be fooled by the distance between places, remember the road or slow and windy, and there are many distractions on route to anywhere – ‘look a chateau on the hill’ or ‘oh wow, a field of sunflowers!’.
We tried to do a mix of sightseeing and relaxing. We also managed to spend a day ‘helping out’ in the friend’s restaurant. We hadn’t been able to shake off London completely for on the third day the weather turned and the rain started. No big deal! In August the tourist attractions are busy so be prepared and try arriving early – as you always should. We visited the clifftop town of Rocamadour, a pilgrimage destination famous for its Cité Réligieuse complex of buildings. Even if you are not into anything medieval it is uber impressive. You can’t help but think Game of Thrones!
We spent a day paddling ( floating ) down the Vézère River with friends. Eating, swimming, drinking ( moderately ) and solving world issues were all easily achieved. Another highlight of the region was a visit to the Lascaux Caves. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which houses a replica of some of the oldest and the most impressive cave paintings on the planet. Don’t let the idea that it is a replica turn you off either. The replica is itself an actual cave on the site, and was done with painstaking precision to be identical to the original. You won’t be sorry you went!
Now with any travel experience it’s only fair to share the let downs, should there be any. To us this was the cuisine of the region. We had been spoiled at our friends restaurant, Le Petit Léon, eating their amazing french inspired food ( there is no bias here for our friends restaurant, it is rated no 1 on Trip Advisor and you would do well to make a booking if in the area). The other restaurants we tried were all much of the same and the food was a bit heavy, not to say they were bad but that’s just how we felt. There is only a certain amount of foie gras and duck one can handle. Then again most of the food is locally produced and the wines are not only good but cheap!
Leaving France and our friends was tough. We had only started to scratch the surface of the area and what it has to offer. We had a train to catch the next day in Menton and a rather far drive to get there. We wanted to avoid the highways and their heavy tolls so for the first 8 hours we stuck to the small back roads. This was a great idea expect that the going was slooow. As we drove we were making plans to return to the area and doing the drive justice by taking our time, a few days if necessary. The scenery changes were dramatic, from the green lush start in the west, over the Massif Central mountain area and the wine regions towards the southeast. This was unmistakably France and it was beautiful.
( Just a small something worth noting about our time in the French countryside. It was was one of the few places that seemed really authentic, a place with its soul intact. Small villages were just that – small! Everything looked medieval. Modern buildings were nowhere to be seen and neither was litter on the streets. No views were disturbed with billboards or golden arches. This was great to see and to experience and we really hope it stays that way ).