Recently I’ve been contemplating what makes one French village more lovely and desirable than another and came to the conclusion that it all depended on the day, time and season of the visit. Maybe I was very fortunate on the day we visited Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère: the weather was warm, the day bus visitors had vanished for the season, and the lunch offerings were most appealing.
The village of around 500 residents sits right on the Vezere river which flows like liquid molasses, gently and lazily around the village and nearby woods. Sparkling miniscule mites buzz in the golden rays, the warm air tinted with the colours of Autumn. A leaf strewn walk beside the river, a crunch through carmine and russet, provides a wild contrast to the benign and domestic village. St Leon’s tastefully restored church invites quiet reflection. The hardest part of my fascination with this village is sorting through the prolific amount of photos I took on the day. Come for a walk around Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère with me.
Next time I visit, I’l stay a while, hire a canoe, walk till the paths run out, and visit the cemetery. But then perhaps beautiful memories should not be tarnished through revisiting.
What makes a French village so special? It’s a question that taunts many a traveller. The answer may be found in one of those many photographic coffee table books on the subject or perhaps in the long list published by the association, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. When staying in the Dordogne departement of southwestern France, it’s a delightful and popular pastime to explore these designated Plus Beaux Villages as well as the small but undesignated communes of the district, thus creating your own list. With advice from the hosts of our rental house in Monpazier, Giselle and Jean-Pierre, together with a bit of reading, we embarked on a busy two weeks of driving around the Dordogne and only now, I’m a little closer to answering that question, though I would be quite keen to do some more research on site.
The association, Les Plus Beaux Village de France, was set up in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac and today the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. The aim of the association is to
“avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, “theme parks”. Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”¹
The departement of the Dordogne has its fair share of beaux villages and if we count a few in the neighbouring Lot et Garonne, the list grows longer. Belves, Beynac, Castelnaud- la- Chappelle, Domme, Limeuil, Monpazier, La Roque Gageac, Saint- Amand- de- Coly, Saint- Jean- de Cole, and Saint Leon sur Vezere have received this prestigious title. Most villages have a market day, though after a few markets, you will begin to recognise many stall holders. Still, there will be surprises and very local specialties in each of them. The smaller villages and hamlets not on this list are often more beautiful in many ways.
And so back to that question. What makes a French village so special? It really does depend on the day. My ‘best of’ list is naturally informed by my own value judgments as no doubt yours would be too. Many factors affect that judgement, such as, the weather on the day, the density of tourists which goes hand in hand with the season, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the village to a river, the attraction of a market in progress, the arrival of a cavalcade of day tourists in small buses, turning your favourite village into a theme park, the blustering cajolery of les Anglais, the Dordogne’s more recent residents from over La Manche who are omnipresent in some villages, congestion or its opposite, deathly quiet, the authenticity of the architecture, signage, cuisine, and friendliness, just to name a few factors. Although food is often high on my agenda, my main interest in this area is medieval history and architecture, as well as following the course of the Vezere river, a most enchanting river, as it winds its watery way through this verdant rural land.
Of the 50 or so villages, hamlets and towns that I visited in 2017 and 2011, my favourite villages include Saint Leon sur Vezere, Belves, Monpazier, Issigeac, Limeuil, the small commune of Biron, and the larger towns of Le Bugue and Bergerac. During a visit to this area in 2011, we stayed in Brantôme en Périgord and grew to love that town and the little hamlets nearby. We also have a list of our least favourites, which includes Eymet ( nice architecture but oh- so -English) and La Roque- Gageac, beautifully situated on a steep slope next to the Dordogne river, but frequented by a long procession of bus tour groups. Below, a media show of the picturesque village of Eymet.
The history of the region can be read in the architecture, with castles, chateaux, churches, abbeys, bastides, and cave fortresses along with the more modest domestic architecture and streetscapes such as medieval market halls, bastide walls, village squares, fountains, laneways and half-timbered houses. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you have a car to tour the myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns that dot the countryside.
There are 520 communes in the Dordogne, 1500 castles and 18 Bastide towns. So much to see and so little time. More research is definitely required.
For Helen and Chris, who will be there soon enough. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my favourite village, Saint Leon Sur Vezere.
Today, I’d rather be travelling, anticipating another day of surprise and wonder, hearing the world in another language, pondering the beauty of architecture or the evolution of a city, wandering down lanes at random and getting lost, buying cheese at a weekly village market then picnicking by a river, walking and walking and never tiring, taking a ferry on a lake, a train through a tunnel or a tram across a city, driving over a vertiginous bridge, ordering a lunch, a dinner or a wine. It hasn’t taken long for my wanderlust to return. Below are views of Menton, a large sprawling town on the border of France and Italy. It is a place where you can hear French and Italian spoken at the same table, inspiring a drive in either direction, the French Riviera one way, or Northern Italy the other.
After a long holiday, it’s an amusing pastime to sit down and make a ‘best of’ list. The categories are numerous but might include the best cathedral, the best small church, the best restaurant meal, rental accommodation, hotel, seascape, musical experience, road trip, small village, river, wine and so on. When it comes to churches, there are plenty of candidates. My award for best cathedral goes to Nantes Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St Paul, in France.
The building commenced in 1434 and took 457 years to complete. It is built in the French Gothic style, with late additions in Gothic Flamboyant and late Gothic. There are no jarring classical Italianesque elements or afterthoughts. Like many French cathedrals – Chartres comes to mind – the soaring height and long narrow nave overwhelms the visitor: silence descends, with occasional echoes of shuffles and murmurs bruising the ambience. Shafts of celestial light expose incandescent dust mites, while thoughts, not necessarily religious but meditative and spiritual, ascend into space.
The Tomb of Francis 11, Duke of Brittany, is located within the cathedral. Sculpted from Carrara marble in 1507 by Michael Colombe, it is an extraordinary work in the Renaissance style and is considered a masterpiece of French sculpture. The recumbent figures of the deceased couple, Francis and Margaret, lie prostrate with hands raised in prayer, as their heads rest on pillows held up by three angels. Margaret’s feet rest on a greyhound, symbol of fidelity, while Francis’ feet are on a lion, representing strength. At the four corners stand statues each representing the four virtues, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. Under these statues, huddled in small shell-shaped medallions, are penitent mourners draped in black.
While the tomb is elaborate and detailed, the cathedral space is light, spare and uncluttered, making the contrast even more appealing. Time to light a candle.
My award, incidentally, for the best small church can be found here.
Although I’m now in Italy and have a handsome little kitchen in my apartment in Pavia, there has been little time to use it, except for a quick breakfast. One of the oddities of the Italian kitchen is the lack of toaster: the typical home breakfast consists of coffee and sweet biscuits. No wonder lunch is so important to the Italians. So this month, I’m stepping back into my last kitchen of two weeks ago in France. Located in Pézenas, in Languedoc- Rousillon in the south, the house was built in the 15th century and was located right inside the doors of the old city. Old buildings are initially very charming and romantic to the Australian eye but after a week or so, the lack of light became noticeable and I imagine this would be quite disheartening in winter. Despite this, I always got a thrill opening the large wooden door on the street and entering the cold stone courtyard to climb this ancient spiral staircase.
The kitchen, although tiny, was very functional. I wouldn’t mind slipping this antique copper soup ladle into my handbag!
Pézenas is close to the sea. Every day, the market square oyster sheds opened for business. We managed to consume a few dozen while staying there. Freshly shucked by the man in the shed, served with a squeeze of lemon and some pan complet, – another speedy meal made(!) in my French kitchen.
Plenty of wine found its way into our kitchen. We developed a taste for rosé wine: so much drier than the Australian rosé and so pleasant for lunch.
Occasionally a nice white was discovered, especially on the day I made a tray of crumbed Coquilles Saint Jacques. Scallops are also plentiful here and are always sold on the shell.
I’ve been following the trail of the Camino of Santiago ( St Jacques) as we travelled across France. A pilgrim village is easily recognised by the sign of the scallop shells on the walls of cheap hostels or embedded in brass along the footpaths. When I’m at home, I keep the shells and reuse them as fresh scallop meat is more readily available off the shell. The shells always remind me of Santiago de Compostela.
One of the other quick dishes I’ve made in all my French kitchens is so simple it’s worth noting here. Grab some perfectly ripe figs, put them in an ovenproof dish with a good amount of honey, and bake for 10 minutes or so in a hot oven. While they’re cooking, shell some fresh walnuts and toss in a pan to toast, then add them to the baked figs. Serve with crème fraîche. The success of this instant sweet depends on the quality of the honey. Jean Pierre gave us a pot of his own honey back in Monpazier. It is aromatic and floral, similar to Tasmanian Leatherwood.
The local market at Pézenas was full of treasure from the South. More Mediterranean goods were on offer than the markets in Dordogne.
Thanks Sherry, once again, for hosting this series. You can find other kitchen posts at Sherry’s Pickings.
What is a trip to France without doing the rounds of the Brocante? These visits can be enormously frustrating for the traveller, but then if you couple your tour with their fantasy friend, ‘ the little house in the countryside’, they take on far more meaning. The fantasy starts with the ‘for sale’ sign, à vendre, hanging from the window of a sweet shuttered country house. This is followed by a slow perusal of prices in the windows of the immobilier. In Monsieur Tranquillo’s case, this means every real estate agent’s window in every village, and includes collecting the free glossy brochure, all in the interests of research! Oh mon dieu! And so it’s only logical that a visit to the Brocantes must follow. That’s my department. I’m yet to find some vide greniers ( garage sales ) and marchè aux puces ( flea markets) in my travels, though there are locality guides for these too.
Pézenas in Languedoc- Roussillon has around 20 or so Brocante, which are located on the outskirts of the town, mostly along Avenue de Verdun. On a sunny day, we managed to visit 8 or so stores. I usually head straight to the antique linen collection, knowing that I can always squeeze in a monogrammed torchon, serviette or sheet in lovely thick white linen.
Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local marché, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.
What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.
The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and Cèpes(porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.
The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.
There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.
In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.
One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath café scene. Coffee and wine are sipped slowly, double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Café des Arts in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old Provençal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret.Bonne journée.
The light on Provence is quite different to that of other parts of France. Warmer, stronger and harsher, everything seems to glow. Scenes from Cassis by the sea. Today I’ll let my pictures to the talking.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I began ‘Almost Italian’ in an attempt to document my obsession with food along with some of the cultural aspects of Italy that inform my life, my cooking and gardening. Since then, I’ve drifted away from my main theme, especially when travelling, and so I hope, dear reader, that these little indulgent travel stories are a pleasant distraction from whatever you are doing. Once I step back into my home and garden, the recipes will flow once again.
I’ve enjoyed the food of Dordogne, France, immensely. Everything I’ve eaten, with only two exceptions, has been quite special. Small restaurants and bistros respond enthusiastically to the seasons, and so a trip around a French country market will indicate what you’ll see that week on any menu. This season, cèpes ( porcini mushrooms) are still being hunted in the woods, pears and apples are sold ready to eat, kissed by the Autumn sun, irregular in shape and handsomely mottled. Small yellow fleshed potatoes are good just as they are, or with some salted butter from up Brittany way. Small bunches of parsley are added to your fish purchase, a box of oysters will be laid gently of a bed of seaweed, and vegetable stalls offer bunches of bouquet garni, consisting of thyme and bay laurel, for a small coin. This month, many bistros list omelette aux cèpes, which may seem like a simple enough dish, until you notice that fresh cèpes cost around €22 per kilo at the local market. I bought a small box and the flavour will haunt me forever. Walnuts turn up in every sweet dish imaginable, tarts, macarons, biscuits, as well as fresh walnut oil, which I resisted buying. Organic food is sold in markets, farmer’s roadside stalls and on supermarket shelves: there’s nothing precious about it- it’s a choice that doesn’t involve a huge premium or a special stamp of approval.
What I’ve loved most about French bistro food is the saucing, a technique that the French are famous for. A well executed sauce transforms a simple fish dish. The French are also reasonably adventurous and don’t stick to the formulaic dishes of the region but happily borrow and adapt from modern culinary trends, while maintaining a French slant.
When I return, I plan to work on my saucing and practise a little French technique. French bistro dishes will be trialed and blogged. Thanks for following, dear friends and readers. Bonjour or bonsoir. xx
The three course menu du midi, above, cost €21, which seems like a real bargain to an Australian reader, where restaurant dining and wine pricing is ridiculously expensive. But then, wages are much lower in France, and waiting staff are usually run off their feet.
Privilège du Périgord
58 rue Notre-Dame
I’m writing at the kitchen table, as I usually do, before dawn. The sun rises slowly, though here in the Dordogne region of France, dawn seems to drag on forever, like a long twilight in reverse. Morning is not much fun: fog and mist often continue until lunchtime when the sun finally breaks through and shoos the grey away. Jackets and scarves for the morning: t-shirts and sun hats for the afternoon. No wind spoils Autumn, no leaves quiver: the climbing vines on village stone cottages are turning crimson and pink.
On days like this, an outdoor lunch calls, perhaps a picnic by the Vezere river or a drive to a nearby village, just in time to nab an outside table at a little inn for the menu du midi. For us it will depend on the offerings of the day, which are chalked up on boards at around 11 am. Some days the menu has little appeal: it’s often duck gesiers, magret de canard, salade d’ aiguilllettes, or fois gras – it’s a hard life for ducks and geese around here. As pescatarians ( vegetarians who eat some fish on occasion), we can be hard to please in this region so there’s always a back up plan.
Packed in a little box in the boot of our car is a good goat’s cheese, a few tomatoes, a baguette and a bottle of Bergerac Rosé for our little field trips into the woods, rivers and villages of the lovely Dordogne countryside. If we pass a market on the way, we add a homemade walnut tart, a bag of apples, or perhaps a nice quiche. One way or the other, there’s always a good lunch.