Our Locations in France

Thursday, January 7, 2016

An excursion through southwestern France

We just returned from a week in the southwestern part of this beautiful country.  This could very well be my new favourite part of France.  Here is the route we took:

We needed to be in Toulouse on Monday morning to meet Will and Jamie's train (they took the overnight train from Paris to Toulouse).  So we decided to leave a couple of days ahead of time, and see some towns along the way.  So glad we did, as we saw some incredible sites.

We started out on Saturday morning and drove to Oradour-sur-Glane.  I had read about this town in the Rick Steves guidebook.  The story is a sad one.  Four days after D-Day, the Nazis came into this town and killed most of its inhabitants (642 people) and the town was partially destroyed by fire.  The French government directed that the town not be rebuilt, so that people would never forget the atrocities of that day.

 It was a very moving visit....while there were many people strolling the streets, it was eerily quiet.  Signs indicated where certain events took place.


The only things that remain are made of metal...sewing machines, bed frames, bicycles, cars...

Sewing machine with photos
of those who lived in the house
Remains of a bicycle
Church where woman and children
were corralled and burned to death
Remains of the local garage

We planned to spend the night in Sarlat-la-Canéda that evening, so we could see the nearby prehistoric caves on Sunday.  Sarlat-le-Canéda is a charming medieval town, with narrow cobblestone alleys and handsome stone buildings.  While we arrived after the tourist venues had closed, we did enjoy a nice dinner with local specialties like duck and foie gras. We also enjoyed walking the romantic streets illuminated by the warm glow of gas streetlights and Christmas lights.

My one regret is that we were three weeks too early....they have their annual Truffle festival the third weekend in January!

The next morning, we were up early to get in line to see the last prehistoric cave with color cave drawings still open to the public.  There are several prehistoric caves in this region, but what set Grotte de Font-de-Gaume apart from the others is that it is the original cave with original color art dating from around 15000 BC!!!!  In a word.....incredible.

We arrived at 8:30, even though the ticket office did not open until 9:30, because we wanted to be sure and get in to the cave.  They only allow 52 people to enter the cave each day, to minimise the bacteria that enters the cave.  They have learned from other another cave's mistakes.  Lascaux, which is probably the most famous Cro-Magnon cave, is no longer possible to visit.  There is a Lascaux II, which is a perfect reproduction of the original Lascaux.  Rick and I were more interested in seeing the real deal....and we are glad that we did.  As we left the cave, we wondered whether our grandchildren would have access to this incredible site when they decide to visit.  Hopefully they will.
Pictures were not allowed at the site....again, to preserve the artwork.  I found an image on the internet of one of the paintings that we saw in the cave.

After leaving the cave, we made our way to Toulouse....where we would see Will and Jamie in the morning.

Will and Jamie arrived the next morning via the overnight train from Paris.  I did not know that such a thing existed, but it sounded like a great way for them to get some shut eye while making their way to Toulouse.  Rick and Joanie greeted them at the station at 6am, while my mission was to pick up pastries at the local patisserie (a job that I take very seriously).  Unfortunately, the closest bakery, and the one recommended by our host, was closed on Mondays.  So I failed miserably, as I could not seem to find a bakery that was open on Mondays near the apartment.  Rick's radar for bakeries appears to be improving.  When they returned from the train station, the two of us went out in search of a bakery....we found one within five minutes!  

Toulouse is a nice town, but again, because it was Monday, a lot of the sites that we had hoped to see were closed.  Fortunately, the weather cooperated, and it was a nice day to meander the streets and pick up the vibe of the city.  

Enjoying a hammock at the Square Charles de Gaulle
Along the Canal du Midi
The next day, we planned to drive to Carcassonne (a beautiful medieval citadel), which is about an hour southeast of Toulouse.  But we had to work that attraction around an even more important excursion....LUNCH!  About a month ago, on Facebook, someone posted about a great little restaurant in a hamlet not far from the town of Castelnaudary.  The post had me at the word Cassoulet.  Cassoulet is a regional dish made with white beans and meat which are slow-cooked in an earthenware pot....and it is soooo good.  Fortunately we have a GPS in our car or I doubt we would have ever found this place.  When we arrived, we saw the chef (who appeared to have eaten his fair share of cassoulet) outside the restaurant, gathering wood to fuel the stove in the kitchen.  Jamie and I both ordered the cassoulet, which they brought to us in a big cast iron dish that could have fed six!

Rick had a perfectly cooked magret de canard (duck breast) and Will had the canard confit.  Joanie stuck with her favourite.....steak!  And yes, that is wine on the table.  Normally we do not have wine at lunchtime, but with such rich food, it's a must!

After lunch, we continued on to Carcassonne, whose beauty is in its architecture which is slightly spoiled by all the tacky tourist shops.

The next day, we headed to Saint-Emilion, which is about a two hour drive northwest of Toulouse.  This was probably my favourite town on the whole trip.  Known for its wine, we toured a winery just outside the town.  Then we returned in the late afternoon to enjoy the village itself.  Joanie picked up keys to the clock tour at the TI, and we climbed the stairs to get a wonderful view of Saint-Emilion and the surrounding region.  Spectacular.

Keeper of the key
View from the top 
From Saint-Emilion, we headed to Bordeaux, which would be our last stop before heading back to Angers.

Bordeaux is a very pretty city on the banks of the Garonne river.  It has a wonderful quay that extends for over 4 kilometres on the left bank.  We enjoyed strolling down the quay from our rental apartment to the Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d'Eau.

Joanie in front of the Miroir d'Eau

Joanie, Jamie and Will in front of the opera house

Once again, I need to take a moment to talk about food.  That evening, we had a wonderful meal at a restaurant called Le 9 Ô Plat.  The restaurant had only been open for about two months and is located in a residential neighbourhood, so it is a little off the beaten path.  I wrote a long review on TripAdvisor, so if you are planning on being in Bordeaux, I would definitely recommend dining here.

This egg rolled in breadcrumbs was amazing!

Selfie stick in action

The next day was New Year's Eve.  We enjoyed riding the tourist train to see the sites in Bordeaux before heading off to our New Year's Eve feast.  Joanie tried her first (and maybe her last) glass of champagne!   Then we enjoyed the Christmas lights in the city center before heading back to the apartment!

December 31, 2015 First taste of champagne
Halos of light

Let the Pannier flow!
You go girl!

Bonne Année!
Sadly for us, Will and Jamie had to depart early the next morning.

It was New Years Day, and typically we try to enjoy the great outdoors to start the year off right.  As we were looking into things to do, we came across an interesting piece of topography about an hour west of Bordeaux......the largest sand dune in Europe!  I had never heard of Dune du Pilat, but I was intrigued.  The dune is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and an evergreen forest.  Apparently the dune is growing and moving eastward at up to five meters a year....covering up the forest.  They have found artefacts dating back to Roman times in the deepest layers of the sand.  Pretty cool!

We were so lucky because the weather could not have been better.  The sun was shining and wispy clouds made the light perfect for taking photos.  It was so much fun to watch people running down the dune, carefree and enjoying the first day of the new year.  We got in some good exercise too as the dune had loose sand that was two feet deep in some spots.  Joanie took off her boots and found it a lot easier to maneuver in the sand.  I kept my boots on and, when we finished, poured a mini sand dune out of my boots!

Ascending the dune
At the top of one peak looking south

Happy New Year 2016
The next day, we were headed home.  But we are not fans of retracing our steps, so we opted to return via highway D2 which took us through quaint Aquitaine wine towns like Margaux and Pauillac and vineyards as far as the eye could see.  

One of my dad's favorite wines

We caught the Bac Royan-Pointe de Grave in Le Verdon-sur-Mer, which allowed up to cross over the Garonne to the town of Royan in about 20 minutes. 
Rick....happy to be on the water
Joanie and Bronwyn inside the ferry
Landing in Royan
Then we were homeward-bound to Angers.  On the road, we saw at least 5 rainbows....

© Joanie Gaskins

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