A week in Southwestern France, aka Heaven

A recap of our weeklong vacation in the Dordogne region of France, famous for castles, gorgeous scenery, and great food. 

After taking a week off blogging for our family trip to France, I had planned to come back with a weeks worth of knock-your-socks-off recipes. Of course, as I frantically ran around doing last minute packing, I completely forgot to save food pictures to my computer. The whole planning to get work done before vacation always goes down much better in my head than in execution.

Alas, no recipes here today, so instead I’m sharing a recap of our trip. My dad, stepmom, brother, Scott and I spent a week exploring Southwest France. It’s a stunning area filled with history, from prehistoric sites to Medieval castles to Renaissance gardens. This was actually the first place I traveled out of the country to when I was six, so it was neat to compare places to my memories. Sadly, not as many princesses and unicorns as I remembered, but otherwise my memories were pretty on point.

Next week, I’ll have a special post all about the food, but right now, I can’t even think cheese. Yes, I just said that. All I can think of right now are green smoothies.

Until then, here’s a recap of our trip!

Day 1: Our first stop of the trip was Rocamadour, a series of chapels and a village built high into cliff walls. It was once a destination for religious pilgrimages, as one of the chapels housed a black Madonna sculpture thought to have healing powers, and the body of Saint Amadour was found there. After a crepe lunch, we drove to Gauffre de Paderiac, a huge subterranean cavern you can explore by foot and by boat on the underground river. Sadly, you can’t take pictures in the caves, but the massive stalactites and stalagmites were truly breathtaking! Afterwards, we took a quick drive up to Chateau Castlenau-Bretenoux for pictures.

Day 2: We spent the day visiting castles around the Dordogne river, which seems to be overrun with them – around one little bend in the river, we could spot at least 5! Without getting all military history on you, the site was important during the 100 Years War because it was the border between France and English owned Aquitaine. We went inside two of the most important, Chateau de Beynac (French) and Chateau Castelnaud (English), which almost face each other across the river. We also visited La Roque-Gageac, a tiny village built into a cliff, where you can see ancient cliff dwellings. The town has a microclimate that allows tropical plants to grow – very odd to see a palm tree outside a Medieval house! While in La Roque-Gageac, we hopped on one of the flat bottomed boats for a tour of the river that gave us some spectacular views of the castles.

Day 3: We spent the first half of the day immersed in prehistory, first with a visit to the cave at Font du Gaume, one of the few places you can see actual prehistoric cave drawings, then with a visit to the National Prehistory Museum. Little known fact about me – if I wasn’t a dietitian, I would be a paleontologist or archeologist, so this was right up my alley. Next up was Chateau de Commarque, one of the highlights of the entire trip for me (other than the cheese, obvi). The castle, which was ruined during the Wars of Religion in the 1500s, is in the process of being restored by it’s current owner. Pictures are posted all over the site of how it looked 40 years ago, almost completely covered by forest. It reminded me of touring Machu Picchu actually! What’s really neat about the site is that it was inhabited for over 1,000 years, so you can see troglodyte (cave dwelling – my new favorite word) homes from the 4th century under the 12th century castle ruins.

Day 4: We spent the day visiting a few of the small villages in the area. First was Belves, which despite being named one of the most beautiful villages in France, was kind of a disappointment. Next was Monpazier, which I loved, mostly because they had a lively farmers market open in the middle of town. I love you Soda City, but their market had me dreaming of moving to France! After a long, leisurely and delicious lunch (p.s. chestnut soup is a revelation), we headed to Chateau Bonaguil. The castle was built by a man who frequently went around calling himself the biggest and the baddest in the land, which apparently isn’t so great for making friends. With dozens of enemies, he did the sensible thing and created a castle so massive and imposing, no one dared to attack. Climbing to the top of the tower felt like you were looking out over a skyscraper! Right as the sun began to set, we arrived in Domme, probably the prettiest village we visited. The bastide town is situated above a rocky hilltop over the Dordogne River, perfect for watching the sunset.

Day 5: My brother and stepmom took a long bike ride by the Dordogne, and since bikes aren’t really my thing (bring back rollerblades I say!), Scott and I went off on our own for the day. We took a gorgeous drive through the countryside to Grotte de Pech Merle, a massive cave filled with fascinating natural formations and the most intricate cave drawings from 24,000 years ago. It was amazing to see the artistry and clear symbolism. Large-bottomed women next to a giant mastodon…those cavemen were kinda freaky! Afterwards, we drove to the town of Cahors for lunch, then visited the wine region, famous for their inky red wine so rich and tannic it’s called “vin noir,” which I may or may not have had a little too much of.

Day 6: Although we stayed right outside of Sarlat, we didn’t really explore the city until today. A travesty really, because it’s one of the two most beautiful towns we saw, along with Domme. We explored the town on a Saturday, the same day they hold their city market. With all the local produce and artisan foods, I was basically in heaven! The entire town is quite beautiful, but the historic center, consisting of 250 Medieval homes and buildings is truly spectacular. There were times I felt like I was time traveling! After lunch in the city, Scott and I visited the Jardins de Marqueyssac, located on a rocky outcropping high above the Dordogne River. This spot had by far the best views of the area – with a 180 degree turn, you could see part of Sarlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac, Chateau de Montfort, Chateau de Beynac, Chateau de Castelnaud, and countless small country towns.

Day 7: Scott and I left the rest of my family in the morning to spend a few days on our own. We drove out to Carcassonne, a fully restored, fortified town that’s the largest fortress in Europe. It’s been occupied for over 5,000 years and you can even distinguish the towers that were originally built by the Romans. Over the years, more and more defenses were added with every war and invader. We spent the afternoon exploring the town, then retired to our hotel for wine on the balcony along with a view of the city lit up at night.

Day 8: A perfect last day to our trip! We spent the morning hiking the four ruined Cathar castles at Lastours. The castles are perched high on a rocky hilltop with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. There was something really magical about the place, probably because there was only one other couple on the trails, so it felt like we were discovering the site for the first time. Before catching our flight out of Toulouse, we briefly stopped in the city to see their famous cathedral. Now, we’re saying au revoir to France and a quick hallo to London to spend a night with friends before heading back to Columbia.

It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, but I could have spent another month there exploring the countryside. If you’re thinking of taking a trip, feel free to shoot me an email and I’m more than happy to help plan! Now, it’s back to your regularly scheduled recipes.