Spain/France Trip: Dordogne Valley (Days 9-11)


Dordogne Valley (Days 9-11):

Now, it was time to start our journey to Sarlat-la-Caneda (where we were staying) in the Dordogne valley.  We had chosen to visit this area because it is the home of foie gras in France, and, well, we LOVE foie gras.  There are also several beautiful old villages with castles dotting the valley forged by the river.  fullsizeoutput_5We arrived in Sarlat in the late afternoon and parked in a public lot that was free during this time of year (just another benefit of traveling on shoulder or off season). Sarlat is mostly a pedestrian-only town with one main road down the middle.  We lugged our bags down a somewhat steep, rocky lane and found our hotel, Villas des Consuls.  This “hotel” is actually a bunch of self-catering condos or apartments.  We had a one-bedroom condo (Richelieu) with a living room, small kitchen, eating area, as well as a patio outside of the door and a step-out balcony off of the bedroom.  It was quite cozy and well-priced, and I would highly recommend staying here.

That night, we wanted to take a break from dining out and cook our own meal, so we headed to the Carrefour down the road.  We had fun looking around at all the items we don’t see back home, and we ended up buying food for dinner as well as breakfast.  One thing that was odd and a bit difficult for us shopping was trying to find the milk.   fullsizeoutput_7We  kept scouring the refrigerated sections of the  store  and  couldn’t  find  milk  anywhere.  Surely, they have milk, we thought.  Then, while walking down  an  regular  aisle, I  saw  a  shelf  of milk at the end of the row.  The milk was sitting there, warm, and I was freaked out to buy it.  Turns out it was UHD (ultra pasteurized) milk, which is somewhat popular in Europe.  We grabbed a small milk, checked out, and were on our way back to Consuls.  We made dinner back at the hotel, relaxed on the couch, and watched a little TV (we settled on Grey’s Anatomy in French).

The next morning – day nine – we woke up and took our time eating breakfast (some cereal and yogurt we had purchased the night before).  A funny aside:  The yogurt came in these cute glass jars that we ended up saving and bringing home.  Today we were heading out (driving) to Rocamadour, a medieval village carved into the side of a cliff.  Along the way, we admired the countryside and were delighted by the castles and old buildings dotting the hills.  Great scenery.  Not too far from Rocamadour, on the windy road leading from the highway to town, we came across a castle literally on the end of a cliff, dangling above the valley below.  I was completely enchanted by the setting, but we needed to make it to Rocamadour as we didn’t know how long we would need there.  We vowed to take a picture on our way back, time permitting.

View of the castle hanging off a cliff (we went back for a picture)!

As we approached the town of Rocamadour, we were amazed at the view before us.  You would never know this town was here.  The entire approach is at the same level as the top of the cliff that the town is nestled into.  Until you are already in town and start driving down the side of the hill, there is no indication of  this  unique  setting.  fullsizeoutput_aWe  parked  at  the bottom of the valley where  there  are  stairs  to  lead  you  up  to  town.  It  is  important  to remember the setting here, a town on the side of a cliff, because there is a lot of upward climbing (whether that consists of stairs or the pedestrian road leading you up a steep incline).  We walked up the Grand Stairway and explored the chapels and walkways at the top.  I think the most exciting part of Rocamdour is the setting itself.  Seeing these buildings clinging to the cliff is awe-inspiring.  However, in all honesty, we were a little bored and disappointed in everything else.  There really wasn’t much to do here other than see the chapels and Grand Stairway.   While I can appreciate these historical attractions and am happy to have seen them, they weren’t really anything that made you say “wow.”  The setting, though, was definitely something with a wow factor.  So, Rocamdour was a little hit and miss.  We ate a quick lunch on our way down the cliff at the cafe opposite the Best Western hotel and then drove back to Sarlat.  On our way back, though, we made sure to stop and take a proper picture of the castle hanging off a cliff!

View of Rocamadour

Since we didn’t spend as much time in Rocamadour as we had anticipated, we decided to seek out a goose farm to visit.  For those who can stomach it, this is actually a popular attraction in the area.  We picked Fierme du Brusquand (about a 15-minute drive from Sarlat) because we had read that they had English tours and were open every day.  We arrived to find no other visitors and some construction going on at the main house.   fullsizeoutput_bA nice lady came over to us from the house area and explained to us in French that we would not understand the tour as it was in French and that the garage (the force feeding of the geese) was on Friday.  Luckily, I was able to grasp that much with the little French that I know.  She did, however, bring us to the small on-site store to see if we would like to at least buy something.  Perhaps feeling a bit obligated to do so, we ended up purchasing a small container of their best foie gras and thanked the lady for helping us.  She was very friendly, and I believe she was speaking French more slowly for me to process what she was saying, which definitely helped me understand what she was saying a little better.

Back in Sarlat that evening, we explored around town a bit.  I definitely wanted to find the statue of geese and take a picture with it (I know, such a tourist).  As I mentioned before, we love foie gras, and Sarlat is famous for being the heart of  foie  gras  region.  All  you  see around town are duck and goose references. fullsizeoutput_cWe wandered the old town streets, stopped in the main cathedral, and walked by the main square.  Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped at Carrefour (again) to get some mini toasts, jelly, and wine to enjoy with our small, recently-purchased tin of foie gras (Sauternes, as we learned in Bordeaux, was a great complement to foie gras).  We walked back to the hotel and ate the foie gras out on our terrace.  Having made enough food for left overs the previous night, we decided to stay in and have a calm evening at our hotel.

Our last day in the region – day ten – was spent along the Dordogne River, and our first morning stop was Les Jardins des Marqueyssac.  These gardens, located on top of a hill, have the perfect vantage point of the valley below.  Depending on where you are in the gardens, you can see Castelnaud-la-Chappelle, La Roque-Gageac, and Beynac-et-Cezenac.  Walking into the gardens after having bought our tickets, we came upon several peacocks roaming around!  fullsizeoutput_fThe gardens are beautiful, especially the uniquely-trimmed bushes close to the entrance.  Even if you do not enjoy gardens very much, or are not impressed with these particular gardens, this is still a place worth coming to specifically for the views of the surrounding area.  The gardens are expansive, and will take some time to wander around all of the areas.  Walking fairly quickly, we spent about an hour and half exploring the gardens.  We did walk around the entire area and stop to take pictures along the way, though.  At the end of the walk, back toward the entrance, there is restaurant with a terrace overlooking Beynac-et-Cezenac in the distance.  We thought this was the perfect place to eat lunch before visiting other towns in the area.  It was a little chilly and windy at our table, but we were content to eat outside and enjoy the view and ambiance.

View toward La Roque-Gageac from Marqueyssac Gardens

Our next stop in the valley was Beynac-et-Cezenac, which was only a few miles away.  We drove up another hill to the castle and parked at a pay parking lot just outside of the castle.  fullsizeoutput_10There are several pay lots at the bottom of the hill, but, if you’re just interested in seeing the castle, I’d recommend driving up the hill and parking closer to the castle, even though this option is not well-marked. The castle itself was well worth the admission fee.  While there were a few people also visiting, it was by no means crowded, which seemed to be true everywhere we went that day.  Again, this is a big reason we try to travel during shoulder season.  The castle was a massive fortress.  Standing on the ground looking up, it was hard to imagine how the castle didn’t just fall through the ground it looked so heavy!  I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that you can walk inside the castle and climb up into the towers for an even more beautiful view than on the ground.  Besides the views, though, it is always fun to roam around old castle halls imagining what it was like bustling with people all those years ago.  I would highly recommend visiting this castle, especially if you only have time to visit one castle in this area.  The setting is lovely, and the castle is a fun attraction by itself.

View of the Dordogne Valley from Beynac Castle

Having a little bit of time to spare before dark, we headed across the river to Castelnaud-la-Chappelle, only a few miles away.  We drove up the windy road to the top of the hill where the castle was located. Again, there is a (large) paid parking lot  right  by  the  castle. fullsizeoutput_13Admission here, in my opinion, was quite steep for what you were able to do and see, especially compared to Beynac where we had just left and thoroughly enjoyed.   This castle didn’t have a lot of areas to visit, and, admittedly, our experience was probably lessened by the large school group visiting at the same time.  Unless you really want to see the trebuchets, you can probably skip this attraction.  You can get a great view of this castle from the other places in the valley (Beynac and the Marqueyssac gardens), and that view from afar is honestly the best part of Castelnaud.

View of Beynac from Castelnaud-la-Chappelle

Back to Sarlat we went, and, for our last night in this region, I was determined to eat duck in this duck-obsessed (in a good way) town.  One downside of traveling in March is that not everywhere has opened for the season yet, so many of the highly recommended restaurants were closed.  We walked around for awhile and settled on Le Bistrot, close to the main cathedral.  The restaurant was very cozy and had a homey feel to it.  We both ordered prix fixe menus and picked a lot of duck dishes!  The food was good, the waitstaff was nice, and I finally got my duck in Sarlat!  Back to the hotel we went for a good night’s sleep in preparation for a long day of travel (to Barcelona via Andorra) ahead of us the next morning…

NEXT: Spain/France Trip: Barcelona (Days 12-15)