We’ve talked about doing a road trip in France ever since our wedding in St Remy-de-Provence. Outside the big cities, there’s still so much of the French countryside to explore. And the biggest incentive of all? The annual Bordeaux wine festival at the end of June! So a road trip to the southwest of France was planned. 5 towns/cities over 10 days across three regions: Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes.
I need to apologize for the length of this post up front. Over the 10 days we visited so many beautiful medieval villages and towns that it was almost an injustice if I did not mention them or share a photo of the area with you.Day 1: Basel- Nice, Paluds de Noves
We stayed two nights at La Maison de Bournissac in Paluds de Noves where we got married. La Maison also boasts a one-star Michelin restaurant by Chef Christian Peyre, which was another great excuse to stay there!
2.5 hours after arriving at Nice Airport, we arrived safely at La Maison. Driving through its sandy offroad driveway, the familiarity of the beautiful surroundings came flooding back.
After a quick check-in, we were starving and headed straight to the restaurant downstairs. Good thing we made reservations too as the restaurant was full! We never really got a good look at their menu, which was extensive. All we knew was that Chef Christian sources everything locally, so the menu was always based on seasonal produce. We quickly decided that this would be a treat to ourselves for our belated anniversary dinner. The 4-course dinner turned out to be 7-courses…and I had to skip the cheese course!On the menu:
- Appetizer of cucumber jelly served with ham and a hint of horseradish, dates with goats cheese, paella and a mini quiche
- Tiger prawn on a bed of guacamole and tomato base sauce
- Foie gras with citrus confit
- Lobster with wood mushrooms on bed of butter sauce
- Pan fried pigeon
- After dinner amuse bouche
- Mandarin soufflé
Day 2: St Remy, Uzes and Orange
The original plan today was to just hang around in St Remy. There’s a shop here that sells beautiful Provençal tablecloth…and since I’ve ruined one, it was time for a replacement…and then some!Over breakfast, we took a look at the map again and changed our plans slightly for a drive to Orange and Uzès. It turned out to be a great decision.
En route, there was a sign pointing to Pont du Gard and Sam suggested we do a quick stop. I know very little about this Unesco world heritage site. Good thing for Wikipedia! Built by the Romans, the Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River. The bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometre system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes). Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved.Uzès is a gorgeous little town that’s attracted foreign and local visitors alike The circular streets around the historical center were once walls that protected the Medieval castle in the 11th and 12th centuries. Day 3: Pezénas, Carcassonne
We say goodbye to the Provence region and head to the Languedoc-Roussillon.
En route we stopped by this lovely town, Pezénas, for a quick lunch and a walk through town.We treated ourselves to the town’s traditional mince pie, Les Petits pâtés de Pézena. The filling was meaty yet sweet with a sweet sauce oozing out as you take your first bite. A little like a mince pie I suppose.
The weather turned against us as we arrived at Carcassone and so we took the walk in the medieval city under our umbrellas. The dinner at Le Jardin de La Tour introduced Sam to Rognons for the first time. By the way, we learned a new word that evening. That’s kidneys in French!Day 4: Carcassonne Saturday Market, Lastours, Trèbes, Lagrasse, Carcassonne
While Carcassone is famous for its walled historic citadel, the town itself functions like many others but outside of the walls and on the opposite bank of the river. As it was Saturday, we headed into the new town center to explore the bustling little market of cheeses, vegetables, bread and meats. Other than this hive of activity, there wasn’t much to downtown Carcassone and we quickly found ourselves returning to the Pont Neuf to take pictures of the Citadel from afar between the patches of heavy cloud cover.From Carcassone, we ventured about 40 minutes north into the foothills of the Black Mountains to visit the ruins of the four castles at Lastours from the Belvedere lookout point. As the skies still looking grey and ominous, we decided not to hike up to the ruins and instead head to the town to Trebes, in what appeared to be a popular stopping point for canal boat travellers journeying along the Canal du Midi. After lunch, we visited Lagrasse, famous for its active Abbey and another village having attained the classification of “one of France’s most beautiful villages.” Day 5: Saissac, Castres, Lautrec, Albi
Today was a long driving day. We left Carcassonne late morning and headed up into the Black Mountains and into the rain clouds that had threatened the Midi Pyrenees the day before. On the way up to the summit, we passed by Saissac – a small mountain town perched on the edge of a cliff looking out over the forests – and then onwards to Castres.
Castres was a rather industrial town and was our lunch stop. When we made reservations the day before, the restauranteur mentioned that there was a set menu. Only when we arrived did we realize it was Father’s Day! The tiny Amelie Melo restaurant is a movie-themed restaurant with a bathroom dedicated to all things Star Wars including a life-size R2D2 droid. The food was excellent, and three courses later we left rather bloated and feeling very guilty to head further on North.The next pit-stop was Lautrec, famous for its historic town and windmill. Coincidentally, the town was holding a flea market which spilled out across many streets leading up to and through the town. Having stretched our legs, we got back in the car and continued on. We finally reached our destination after about 6 hours of traveling. Albi is located on the River Tarn, c. 85 km northeast of Toulouse. Its inhabitants are called Albigensians (French: Albigeois) and was listed as a Unesco world heritage site in 2010. Wandering around the old town, we found out that it was the birth place of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Day 6: Albi, Cordes-sur-Ciel (25km), Puycelci (31km), Castelnau-de-Montmiral (10km), Gaillac (10km)
Today’s a day to discover the department of Tarn. I guess departments are equivalent of districts or counties in other parts of the world. Except that the departments in France are fairly large.
Our first stop was 25km northwest of Albi to a town called Cordes-sur-Ciel. There was a panoramic picture of the village that Sam wanted to take…which surprise, surprise involved a small trek!
Fortunately it was a very small trek. 5 mins later, we got the panoramic picture of Cordes-sur-Ciel. We were curious with the town center as it looked like it was perched on a hilltop. A short steep walk later, we reached the center of town and it is indeed an impressive looking town.I need to pause here to note that in all the brochures and websites of France villages, there’s always this line, “…is a very pretty village and typical of the region.”
By the time I reached the third village of Castelnau-de-Montmiral, I was just about medieval-town out. Then came the magic word, ‘I’ll treat you to an ice cream.’ Yes, anything’s possible with ice creams!
In the midst of our coffee stop in Castelnau-de-Montmiral, we realized we’re in the middle of the Gaillac wine country. We don’t hear or know much of the Gaillac wine but it’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions of Gaul. So we asked around and were recommended two vineyards for tastings!Day 7: Abli-Conques (113km), Figeac (44km), Rocamadour (61km), La Roque Gageac
As we looked at the itinerary over breakfast, Sam warned that this day was always the toughest when it came to the planning. There were lots of sights in the region that websites highlighted as worthy of visiting but they were widely dispersed and joined only by narrow country roads. Even as we were getting ready to leave, Sam was debating which we would go to see and where we might possibly stop for lunch so that we could call ahead to reserve if necessary. Finally, the choice was made for Conques and Rocamadour, with lunch in-between in Figeac.
Unfortunately driving was slower going than anticipated. The winding roads, out-of-date sat nav map, and constant tractor traffic meant that most of the day was spent in the car. We stopped at Conques only to take a photograph from the viewpoint looking over the town, being turned off of visiting the streets themselves because of the parking charges and the “pretty town” overload.
Figiac is probably most famous for being a route along Way of Saint James. Legend has it that this route will take you to follow the steps of the apostle James who travelled west to preach the words of Christ.From there we went on to Rocamadour. On arriving, we discovered that this highly religious site hosts over a million visitors per year but the combination of tourists and early afternoon heat saw us once again be contented with only a panoramic photograph from a viewpoint before starting the journey out of the rugged mountainous terrain down towards the green and lush valley of the Dordogne.
(Rocamadour is an important pilgrimage destination, and has been for 1000 years. Built on the site of a shrine to a Madonna, the shrine became famous for its healing powers, and soon became a stop on the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Campostela)
We finally arrived at our next stop, La Roque Gageac. After navigating one of the hairiest driveway entrances that involved reversing up a very steep hill in order to navigate the hairpin to follow, we arrived at our B&B Hautes Gageac with an enticing swimming pool and perfect views down over the valley below.
A short walk down to the picture-perfect village Main Street that ran along the edge of the Dordogne river, we settled in for dinner at La Belle Etoile – a Michelin restaurant recommended by our host Christina and her husband Regis – before wandering back under the light of a 10:00pm dusk thanks to it being the longest day of the year.Day 8: La Roque Gageac, Castelnau, Beynac, Sarlat (Pèrigord region)
You can’t go wrong waking up and having breakfast with a view like this.
This house we’re staying in, Le Haut de Gageac, has probably the most unique driving instructions we’ve ever come across. And it takes some skill as well since it involves reversing up a very steep hill before turning in to another street and then squeezing between two houses before reaching the front gate. But once you’re on the compound, all the stress of driving make it all worth it.
After breakfast, we headed into town for this picture.
Today we chased castles. Well, there are 400 around this area afterall. Fortunately we weren’t crazy enough to hunt for all 400 within 10-15km radius.It was probably the hottest day yet. At 33C at midday, all I could do was to hide in the comfort of an air conditioned car!
Sadly I could only hide for so long.
We headed slightly north of the Dordogne Valley to the largest town in the Pèrigord Noir region.
While it is another medieval town, Sarlat’s a beautifully restored town that’s attracted enough of tourists to keep it striving.
Day 9: La Roque Gageac-Monbazillac-Camblanes-et-Meynac
The trip feels like it’s coming to a close as we say goodbye to our knowledgeable hosts at La Roque Gageac, after yet another sumptuous breakfast looking out to the Dordogne Valley and with the Castelnau castle in the distance, and we set off west along the river to what will be our final accommodation in the heart of the Bordeaux wine region.
Yesterday evening, while performing what has started to become a pre-drive ritual of looking at the route and the potential stopping places along the way, Sam noticed the town of Monbazillac just south of Bergerac seemed to be highly photographed on the Geo Photo app, mostly because of its chateau/museum and accompanying vineyards that produce both demi-sec and sweet white wine. If that wasn’t enough of a draw, just a few kilometers away was a one-star Michelin restaurant – la Tour des Vents.So by 3pm, we had fine-dined once again and were leaving the grounds of the chateau having tasted white wine that might otherwise be classed as syrup and were on our way through a never-ending landscape of vineyards – over 100km non-stop to Château du Tasta in Camblanes-et-Meynac.
Day 10: Saint Emillion
We’re quietly pleased we’re coming to the end of our road trip. It’s been a great trip but not having to spend hours in the car was quite appealing as well.At breakfast, our host Caroline asked if we heard anything during the night. There was a torrential storm overnight with crazy lightning but we pretty much slept through the commotion. Little did we know we missed out on quite a bit of action! The lightning had struck the transformer outside the house and caused a small fire. While her husband Benoit struggled with the safety pin on the fire extinguisher, it sounded like Caroline was the heroine of the night/morning. Fire brigades were called and their neighbors showed up…at 4.00am. There was also a Jaguar F series parked outside the driveway that Caroline made sure the fire truck was parked nowhere close to it!
We decided to take an easy today and aimed for only one town, Saint Emilion. We really didn’t know what to expect from this wine producing town and was thoroughly impressed with its beautifully groomed vineyards. It’s history traces back to the first century before Christ, with the Roman colonization. After the fall of the empire, monastic Orders, often drawn to the region by its position in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, developed the vineyard and were responsible for the prosperity of the city.
Day 11: Bordeaux and Fête le Vin
On our final day, after a long breakfast shared with our host and listening to the tales of the other guests who were attending a wedding, we headed into the center of Bordeaux to experience the Bordeaux Wine Festival.
For EUR 21.00, you receive a pass entitling you to one taste from each of the 11 booths spread along a 2km stretch of the river promenade running through the city. Of course, someone was so excited that he missed the turning into the recommended parking, only to be navigated through the convoluted narrow old street of Bordeaux old town and masses of white delivery vans double-parked for the Saturday markets.The wines themselves were good and Sam started to develop a real affection towards those from the St Emilion and Bergerac regions, leaving the roses and whites behind in favor of the intense Bordeaux superiors and other reds.
The trip’s come to an end, but not before spending an evening with a classmate that I’ve not seen since we left high school. It was good to meet her and her family over a BBQ and tasting wine around the region.
We’ve an incentive to come back…and we will! Caroline’s mentioned that she’s already planning for a weekend wine lecture, most likely to Saint Emillion. Now wouldn’t that be cool?
Total distance travelled: 1850km.