Château de Biron

I’m a little obsessed with castles, which means whenever I go anywhere, especially in Europe, I’m on the lookout for a castle to visit. Luckily, the magnificent Château de Biron was only a few kilometres from our base in Monpazier, which meant there was no way I was leaving the Dordogne without visiting this incredible fortress.

Perched high on a hill and dominating the surrounding landscape, it’s impossible to miss Château de Biron. Built in the 12th century, the castle boasts commanding views over the surrounding countryside and is an impressive sight. After it was damaged during the Hundred Years War between France and England, the castle was restored in the 15th century, resulting in a curious blend of architectural styles. It was owned by the Gontaut-Biron family, one of the four baronies of the Périgord, until the early 20th century.

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When we arrived at the castle, we walked through the gates into a large grassy courtyard and having paid for our tickets, were free to wander about as we pleased. Our first port of call was the chapel (above). The chapel features high-vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, which in the bright sunlight left a colourful twinkling pattern on the stone floor, as well as the tombs of a couple of prominent members of the Gontaut-Biron family.

We then walked across the courtyard to have a look around the main part of the castle. The castle is huge and I enjoyed wandering aimlessly around it – up and down the stone staircases and going inside all the different rooms. The castle is largely unfurnished, but it was nevertheless an impressive sight, and I strolled around admiring the stonework and the intriguing mix of architectural styles.

One of my favourite rooms was the kitchen, which was enormous. But I also enjoyed walking across the ramparts between the various towers and taking in the gorgeous views over the adjoining village of Biron and the surrounding countryside. We explored every possible nook and cranny of the castle, and it was great fun.

Having spent a good hour or so exploring all there was to see, we made our way back down the hill towards Biron. On the way, we stopped inside the chapel under the castle, which is home to a small arts and crafts market. The market was fantastic with some lovely, unusual products for sale, and I ended up buying a little leather coin purse and my father bought me a beautiful silver bracelet.

By now it was lunchtime, so we had a quick look around Biron – which is a quaint, pretty little village – then stopped off for lunch in the local auberge. Château de Biron is a great place to spend an hour or two. Sometimes these massive castles you can see for miles turn out to be a disappointment when you visit, but Château de Biron’s interior turned out to be just as impressive as the exterior.

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Sarlat le Caneda

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To the north of the Dordogne lies the pretty town of Sarlat le Caneda. Home to an abundance of picturesque medieval and renaissance buildings, the town is so renowned for its attractive architecture, it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in the region.

On arriving in Sarlat, we headed straight to the most photogenic part – the old town centre. There we walked around the maze of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, admiring the beautiful buildings around us, and paying particular attention to the buildings’ intricate and eye-catching details such as turrets, carvings, and arched doors and windows.

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Sarlat is a foodie town and we were lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, one of its two market days (the other being Saturday), when its narrow, winding streets are filled with stalls selling fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, sausages, meats, cheeses and more. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the food stalls, then stopped by the large covered market that’s filled with yet more food stalls, where I bought some lovely little macarons.

Having thoroughly checked out all the food stalls, we made our way to the Manoir de Gisson, a curious little museum housed in a couple of attractive townhouses that once belonged to high-ranking members of the Sarlat nobility. On going inside, we were greeted by strange and interesting artefacts, as well as some grisly and very painful looking torture instruments.

We carried on through the museum, which then turned into a tour of the living quarters showcasing how the rich townsfolk lived during the medieval and renaissance eras. The museum isn’t very big so it didn’t take long to see it all, but I did leave a little bemused by the two very distinct, contrasting sections. It’s the only museum I’ve been to that combines plushly-decorated living quarters with torture instruments and unusual curiosities.

By now we were getting hungry, so we stopped for lunch in one of the many cafes lining the town’s squares. The food was good, but nothing special, and tummies sated we headed up towards the main street where we carried on admiring the architecture, and popping in and out of the many shops.

As pretty as Sarlat is, I didn’t love it. I found it a little too touristy for my tastes and felt it was on that dangerous cusp of beginning to cater so much to tourists that it loses the charms that made it special in the first place. That being said, if you’re in the region, it’s worth visiting (for now) to see what the fuss is about – just make sure you visit on market day and take advantage of all the wonderful produce on sale.

We’re all going on a boar hunt

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Soon after arriving in the Dordogne, I found a little trail that led from our country gite to Monpazier. Despite being rather untrodden in parts, the trail was a great little 40-minute shortcut to Monpazier taking us through some woods, passed a little stream, a number of farms, and finally, up a hill to the town on top.

Having successfully navigated this walking trail, I’d noticed another trail leading from our gite towards the town of Biron, a few miles away. Biron is home to a grand chateau (above), so I decided to see if this trail turned out to be just as good as the one to Monpazier. My mother, worried at the thought of me hiking through the unknown French countryside by myself, decided to come with me.

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We set off along the path at the bottom of the garden along a narrow ledge that led into the surrounding woods. We clambered over the various brambles and branches lying in our way, winding through the forest until we came out by a field in a neighbouring farm. We tramped across the field to a nearby road, then followed it for a bit until we came to a bend. Instead of continuing along the road, we turned down a path into a big patch of woodland.

The path was wide and clearly marked underfoot. It was a hot and sunny day, and so far we hadn’t come across another living soul. We followed the path deeper and deeper into the woods, when suddenly we heard loud barking. Now I’m a little uncomfortable around dogs, especially large dogs, as is my mother. The noise made us a little jittery as it sounded as though there were lots of dogs roaming the woods, but we carried on regardless.

A few moments later we heard a gunshot. By now, we were spooked and my mother suggested we head back. As we turned around and started walking, an old man appeared carrying a shotgun gesturing to us to continue through the woods, seemingly telling us, “It’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about.”

A little bemused as to what was going on, we followed the man’s directions and headed back into the woods. Soon we heard more dogs and more gunshots; we also met another man with a shotgun. At this point, the penny dropped that there was a hunt going on in the woods.

As we continued, we passed yet more hunters, dogs and even a van – and as we walked past the van, we could clearly hear something rattling around inside. We walked through the woods, intrigued by the activity around us, and as we reached the other side came upon another van with a woman standing beside it.

Using my best French, I asked her what was going on and she told us they were hunting boar. In recent years there’s been an explosion of wild boar in France with more than two million roaming the French countryside. The animals destroy crops, breed like rabbits and are responsible for a high number of car accidents, so for the past seven years there’s been a national control plan in place urging hunters and farmers to keep their numbers down.

By now fully clued up on what we’d unwittingly stumbled upon, we thanked the woman and carried on down the path to Biron. We crossed a large field and came out onto a road, surrounded on either side by woodland. As we wandered down the road, a swarm of midgies and flies joined us and it got so bad we couldn’t keep our eyes open. The flies and midgies were relentless and as more and more joined the party, it became impossible to keep going. So we turned back.

A quarter of an hour after saying goodbye to the boar hunters, we were saying hello to them again. This time walking through the woods, I felt much safer knowing what was going on around us. I also took the time to pay attention to what the hunters were doing. I’d never witnessed a hunt before, but it seemed they were using the dogs to drive out the boar before capturing them.

The afternoon turned out to be one of the most random experiences I’ve had. I may not have made it to the magnificent chateau of Biron, but I did stumble upon a wild boar hunt, something I never thought I’d do. It was a little unnerving when we initially stumbled upon it, but I was fascinated when we discovered what was actually going on. Some of my most memorable travel experiences are those unexpected moments that you couldn’t plan even if you tried, and this afternoon’s adventure turned out to be one of the most unusual.

Cahors

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Of all the places I visited when staying in the Dordogne, the place I was most excited about seeing was the medieval town of Cahors. Not only does the town lend its name to my favourite type of wine, but its famed medieval bridge, the Pont Valentré, had been on my French bucket list since I was a child when I came across it in a book about France and was captivated.

Nestled in a bend in the river Lot, Cahors is the capital of the Lot region (to the south of the Dordogne) and dates back to the 1st century BC. Despite its early origins, the town came to prominence during the medieval era and its old town is home to some spectacular, well-preserved medieval buildings.

On arriving in the town, we parked the car in the centre of Cahors, and immediately made our way down to the old town. There we spent a fair bit of time wandering up and down the narrow warren of streets, admiring the medieval and Renaissance buildings.

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Our first stop was the magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. An architectural gem, the 12th century cathedral is beautiful and has undergone regular and extensive rebuilding over the centuries, resulting in a glorious mix of architectural styles. The cathedral proudly boasts two massive domes over the nave, the largest in south-west France.

We headed inside to explore the interior of the cathedral, admiring the nave, the domes and the stained-glass windows, before heading to the cloisters. The pretty cloisters are centred around a small, neat garden and offer great views of the cathedral. There you can see the cathedral from lots of different angles and I was able to gain a much better appreciation of its architecture. The domes, in particular, stood out with their round navy slate roofs sitting atop the smooth cream stone and dark stained-glass windows.

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Having fully explored the cathedral, we moved on to the part I was most excited about, the incredible Pont Valentré. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pont Valentré was built in the 14th century and took some 50 years to complete. The striking 172m-long bridge features three Gothic towers that boast great views over the Lot. In the 19th century, the bridge was restored by the architect Paul Gout who commissioned Antoine-Cyprien Calmon, a local artist, to carve a small stone devil into the middle tower.

The devil represents an old legend around the construction of the bridge – according to the tale, the original architect sold his soul to the devil in return for help building the bridge. If the devil failed to help the architect at any point, their pact would be broken. So the architect decided to try to get out of the arrangement by tricking the devil and in revenge, the devil made sure the last stone laid on the middle tower kept falling off.

The bridge is fantastic and an incredible piece of engineering. The towers really command your attention, there’s great attention to detail and it’s very well-preserved for its age. It’s quite unlike any other bridge I’ve seen, so needless to say, I was really impressed by it.

The only thing I didn’t like were the large number of elderly tourists, who as soon as I pointed my camera at something would walk in front of it and not move. If I was one of those people who spent ages lining up my shot, I’d understand people getting fed up and walking in front of the camera, but I’m pretty much a point-and-shoot girl (as evidenced by many of my photos), and I found it rude and unnecessary. It wouldn’t have killed them to wait a couple of seconds. But after lots of patience and waiting about, I finally managed to get a few elderly tourist-free shots.

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After spending quite a bit of time exploring every facet of the Pont Valentré, we headed back to the car for a tour of the Lot Valley – and its wineries. Once we left Cahors, it didn’t take long before we hit upon the first wineries and we soon stopped at one. I was in seventh heaven as we wandered around, tasting the glorious bottles of cahors and marvelling at the sheer size of some of the bottles – some were enormous!

A few purchases later, we continued our tour of the valley, snaking our way along the banks of the Lot, crossing the river every so often as we followed the winding roads. The Lot Valley is home to some picturesque old towns and villages, and even if there weren’t lots of lovely wines to sample along the way, it would make for an incredible drive as it’s so pretty and peaceful. It was a really lovely way to end a fantastic day out.

Bergerac

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Sitting on the banks of the Dordogne, medieval Bergerac has a long and turbulent history, and is one of the largest towns in the region. During the middle ages, the town changed hands repeatedly between the French and the English, until it was reclaimed for good by the French king Charles VII in 1450. It was also a Protestant stronghold during the 16th and 17th centuries.

On arriving in Bergerac, we headed straight to the old town where we picked up a map with a self-guided walking tour. The town’s medieval centre isn’t enormous, it only takes an hour or so to walk around it, but it is very attractive. The old town is full of well-preserved timber-clad and light-coloured stone houses, and there are lots of flowers everywhere, adding to its charms.

We followed the walking trail around the winding medieval streets and down towards the river, where we enjoyed great views over the magnificent Dordogne. On the way down to the river, we passed a water level (above) that showed how high the water level had been when the Dordogne has broken its banks over the years. There was also an abandoned wooden boat down by the water’s edge, a reminder of the city’s past as an important trading hub when boats would transport goods up and down the river.

One of my favourite things about Bergerac was the statues of Cyrano de Bergerac, the hero of Edmond Rostand’s play, dotted around the town. There’s a colourful statue of the big-nosed hero on top of the steps of the Place Pélissière beside the 12th-century Église Saint-Jacques. And another statue made out of stone in a little garden in the middle of the Place de la Mirpe.

After spending a good hour or so walking around the town, we stopped off for a late lunch near the Place Pélissière. I enjoyed our day out in Bergerac, it’s a pleasant, pretty town and a nice place to spend a relaxing couple of hours strolling past some very attractive old buildings.

Monpazier

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One of les plus beaux villages en France, the utterly delightful bastide town of Monpazier, south of the Dordogne, more than lives up to its billing as one of the country’s most beautiful villages. I adored it. So much so that if I were ever to move to France, this is where I’d want to live.

The town dates back to 1284 when it was founded by the English king, Edward I. Its one of a series of bastide towns and villages in south-western France built by the English during the Hundred Years War in the 13th and 14th centuries. A bastide town is a fortified town, surrounded by large, thick stone walls and built to a grid layout – and Monpazier is one of the best surviving examples.

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As a typical bastide town, Monpazier has a large square at its centre, a series of streets and alleyways leading off it, and fortified gates around the edges providing entrance to the town (today, three of the original six gates remain).

Around the central square is a series of covered walkways home to shops, including a tabac where I’d get my daily newspaper; restaurants; and a great little café, where I’d stop off for a hot chocolate in the morning. The square also hosts the town’s market on a Thursday, as well as a number of flea markets throughout the summer where I had great fun browsing (and buying) antiques.

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Monpazier is home to some excellent shopping. There’s a fantastic leather shop, where I bought a black leather handbag – everything in there was so nice, I could easily have bought half the shop. There are also a number of shops selling home furnishings, a butcher’s that sells portions of homemade lasagne and quichés, and stores selling local food stuffs, such as foie gras and pécharmant wine.

One of my favourite spots was the fabulous patisserie on the Rue Saint-Jacques. The cakes and desserts were so good I made a daily pilgrimage (apart from the day it was closed) to sample a different treat – the walnut tart was particularly good. By the end of the week, the lady who ran the patisserie must have thought “You, again?” as I enthusiastically sauntered through the doors.

Monpazier’s light coloured stone buildings are incredibly pretty and largely untouched since medieval times – it’s so charming, I found myself happily ambling around on a daily basis, somewhat in awe of its loveliness. Adding to its many charms, it has a relaxed vibe, and the people are warm and friendly, too. If you’re looking for somewhere to base yourself in the Dordogne, you could do a lot worse than Monpazier.

Dordogne

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With its lush green forests, picturesque medieval architecture and gourmet food, the Dordogne is one of my favourite parts of France. Cutting a swathe through the heart of the region in the south-west of France is its namesake river. The magnificent Dordogne River flows for more than 300 miles from the mountains of the Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand to the Gironde Estuary, just north of Bordeaux.

I first visited the Dordogne when I was around eight years old on a family holiday. We were staying in a caravan on a campsite and I have fond memories of riding through the campsite’s forest on my bike during the hot sunny days and being awe-struck by the epic thunderstorms at night.

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So when my parents said they were renting a gite in the Dordogne for a week and would I like to join them, I jumped at the chance. We stayed in a lovely little house, just outside the bastide town of Monpazier, and from there we day-tripped to nearby Bergerac, the pretty medieval city of Sarlat-la-Canéda and the stunning Chateau de Biron (above). We also toured the nearby countryside, as well as the vineyards of the Lot valley and its capital Cahors.

France is renowned for its excellent cuisine and, in my opinion, the region’s gastronomy is among the country’s very best. Put simply the Dordogne is a foodie’s paradise. Home to deliciously ripe fresh fruits and vegetables (I discovered black tomatoes in a greengrocer’s in Monpazier), beans and strong cheeses. Duck and goose can commonly be found on restaurant menus, along with nuts in various forms – I enjoyed more than one walnut tart during my week’s stay. Foie gras is also a popular local delicacy, despite its notoriety, and you can find it for sale all over the region.

The Dordogne’s wines may not be as famous as those of the neighbouring Gironde, but it’s home to some very drinkable wines. Péchamant, from the Bergerac area, is a full-bodied red and this became our wine of choice during our week as there was a little shop selling cheap, drinkable boxes of it in Monpazier. The region also produces the Montbazillac dessert wine. To the south of the Dordogne, the Lot valley is home to my favourite wine, the Cahors.

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But what I like best about the region is its traditional, relaxed way of life. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming, and there’s a slow, laid-back charm to the area. If you’re looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing, with a little bit of sightseeing, history, beautiful scenery and incredible food and wine, there’s no place better than the Dordogne.

Neuf-Brisach

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On our final day in Alsace we headed up the road to the nearby vauban of Neuf-Brisach, a strategically located town on the French side of the Rhine, across the river from the German town of Breisach-am-Rhein. An enormous octagonal fortress surrounds the town, designed to protect it from invaders, which over the centuries has been a real threat. In a 150-year period, Alsace changed hands between the French and the Germans five times – that’s once every 30 years!

The vauban of Neuf-Brisach was the last of a series of fortifications built along France’s borders by the great military engineer Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban in the late 17th/early 18th centuries. The fortifications are impressive and comprise a layer of 30-40ft sheer stone walls that enclose the town. There are further outer layers of defences and in between is a network of deep trenches. Within the walls there are lots of tunnels and gaps for firing weapons at the enemy, while four gates, three of which are accessed by small bridges, provide entry to the town.

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We walked the 2.4km around the fortifications to admire the forbidding defences. In the grassy trenches, there were a number of contemporary art installations, including an impressive fallen horse made of straw, a series of lampshades and a large metal ship that marked the entrance to a gate to the town. Inside the gate was the Musée Vauban, a museum dedicated to the town’s fortifications.

There was also what looked like a contemporary art exhibition within the vauban’s tunnels, although we were told we were not allowed in by a stern tourist train operator. It seemed as though only those who’d travelled on the train from the town centre were allowed inside, which seemed rather short sighted as five adults were turned away in the few minutes we were there!

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We also briefly walked along the top of the stone walls. There was a grassy path on top of the walls, but the path was a little uneven under foot and rather too close to the edge for my liking, and having seen the 40ft drop that awaited me if I tripped, we thankfully didn’t spend too long up there.

The vauban was interesting and gave me an insight into a part of France’s military history that I wasn’t familiar with. It was the first time I’d visited a vauban, but there are another 11 (all named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008) that were built along France’s borders to keep them safe. This visit has whetted my appetite for these amazing fortifications and I’ll definitely look to explore more of them on future trips to France.

Ecomusee d’Alsace

We had a spare day in Alsace and looking for something to do, we decided to visit either the Ecomusée d’Alsace or Staufen-im-Breisgau, on the edge of the Black Forest and famous for its association with Doctor Faustus. The Ecomusée won. Partly because it was closer, and partly because our hosts gave us some money off vouchers to use there.

Luckily, it turned out to be absolutely fabulous. The Ecomusée is an open-air museum dedicated to rural life in Alsace over the last couple of centuries. It’s deceptively big and despite expecting to spend only an hour or so there, we were there for almost four hours and could have spent longer looking around.

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The Ecomusée is a collection of 74 buildings that have been dismantled and rebuilt, brick by brick. It’s an incredible achievement and it’s great fun walking through the museum village and discovering the many buildings and industries each one represents. There’s a pottery and a blacksmiths (each with working potters and blacksmiths), a barber’s, an olive oil maker’s, a house dedicated to Alsatian fashion and many, many more. There are also farms and houses belonging to different classes of people (including a castle with pretty, romantic gardens) to show how people at different levels of society lived.

What amazed me most was that you could walk right through each furnished house and there were no guards watching your every move (as happens in the UK). You were just trusted to look around and leave everything as you found it.

 

The museum is home to lots of animals including ducks, donkeys, goats, pigs and chickens. One of my favourite things were the storks on the roofs of many of the houses. I’ve never seen storks up close before and I had a great time spotting them on the different roofs (above).

During our visit, there was an exhibition on the illustrator Hansi in the old train station, which was really interesting, and we tried some Alsatian specialities, too – an apple fritter, which was really good. We also took the opportunity to take a gentle boat ride through the museum’s network of waterways. The water was really still and there were loads of ducks to be seen hiding among the reeds and foliage. Gliding through the water, the place had a swampy feel to it and it reminded me of the Louisiana bayous I’ve seen on TV.

The Ecomusée was brilliant and gave me a real insight into Alsatian culture through the years. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

Info
Ecomusée d’Alsace, Chemin Grosswald, 68190 Ungersheim, France
€15 Adults, €10 Concessions and Children
ecomusee-alsace.fr

 

Route du Vin

riquewihr-13-09-16-3There are few things I enjoy more than a good glass of wine, so when I discovered Alsace had its own Route du Vin, there was no way I was going to let that opportunity pass.

Snaking its way through the Alsatian countryside in the shadow of the Vosges mountains, the Route du Vin is so-called because of the many, many vineyards in the area. This is wine country and all around us, the fields and hills are filled with row upon row of grape vines. And all along the winding road are caves selling the wares made from these luscious green vines, the most tempting of which are the caves advertising cremant d’Alsace, the local fizzy, which I’d already sampled extensively and can attest is delicieuse.

Dotted along the Route du Vin are pretty little towns and villages, the most notable of which are Ribeauville and Riquewihr. We stopped at Riquewihr, a picturesque town of charming, brightly-painted timber houses, many of which have been turned into shops selling Alsatian produce for the visiting tourists, such as pretzels (above) and kougelhopf (an Alsatian cake shaped like a crown). A lot of the wine shops allow you to sample the produce before you buy, and we bought a local Riesling and a Sylvaner. I’m not a big fan of white wine, but the Riesling was very drinkable.

My favourite shop in Riquewihr was the cheese factory, an underground warehouse filled with huge rounds of stinky, yellow goodness. It might have smelt decidedly pongy, but the cheeses looked divine. The other shop worth a visit is the Christmas shop. It looks fairly innocuous from the outside, but step inside and it’s a never-ending cavernous lair dedicated to all things Christmas. I have never seen so many Christmas baubles in all my life.

The Route du Vin is fairly short, but it’s a lovely drive. The vineyards are very attractive, especially when the sun is shining, and the towns and villages charming. Plus there’s the added bonus of lots of wine just waiting to be tasted on practically every corner…