La Belle France By Harriet O'Grady
If bling is what gets you going or if you are in search of instant thrills, then the Dordogne and the Lot departments in South West France are not for you. But, if you enjoy the finer things in life such as history, good food, fine wines, or simply countryside, rivers and landscapes that leave you with a sense of wonder, then this is, indeed, the place to go.
This is, after all, a part of France steeped in the most romantic of French and English medieval history. The Dordogne was part of the land of the beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine, patron of the arts, courtly love and the troubadours; Queen of France by her first marriage, then Queen of England, bringing with her the land of Aquitaine to the English Crown for over 200 years. She was also mother of the tall, blond, handsome and legendary Richard the Lionheart, great grandson of William the Conqueror, who was so sure of his invincibility that he rode unprotected within striking distance of the French.
This is a wooded land of starlit skies, gentle hills, vales and valleys, limestone cliffs, rivers, gorges and ornamental grottos, to name but the famous Lascaux. It is known for its truffles, wines, walnuts, lamb and, of course, foie gras. The wisteria and lilacs are in full bloom, and the grass and leaves are bright green from new spring growth when my companions and I gather for a Relais & Chateaux Route du Bonheur trip with stays in three well established hotels: Le Vieux Logis, Le Château de Mercues and Château de la Treyne.
BMW, the official sponsors of Relais & Chateaux, have provided us with two cars, an open top 650i Cabrio and an X5M 50d. I have driven across the Massif Central, a spectacular drive in itself, through unspoilt countryside to arrive, in the early evening, at our first hotel, Le Vieux Logis, a 4 star hotel with a 1 star Michelin restaurant, set in the village of Tremolat, with its large meander in the river Dordogne. Henry Miller came to Le Vieux Logis for one night but ended up staying for several weeks. He was so struck by the beauty of this exquisite region that he wrote in The Colossus of Maroussi that “France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.”
Originally a priory and then a large 17th Century farmhouse, the grounds have been turned into the loveliest French-style garden by the landscape architect, Laure Quonian. Estelle Arnoult, the Directrice, welcomes guests with the famous warmth of the people of this area. It is the type of hotel where one immediately feels at home, with large comfortable sofas, armchairs and plenty of prints on the walls. Chef Vincent Arnoult, who obtained the title of “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” in 2007, specialises in tasty seasonal dishes using the best local produce. We sit down to a very good dinner in what used to be a large tobacco drying barn. It is the season of asparagus. We have lamb from the Quercy valued for its aromatic flavour, strawberries as well as fine wines from the area.
The next morning, we are off in the warm spring sunshine through pastoral countryside following the Dordogne river to Beynac, a medieval town built in local pale yellow sandstone with pitched roofs that winds its way up to the large 12th Century fortified castle of Beynac which was overtaken by Richard the Lionheart. Later in the afternoon, we take a boat trip on the Dordogne from La Roque-Gageac. By now perfectly relaxed, we dream and drift along this wide black river bordered by bucolic banks where trees and grass gently meet the water. Everywhere we look there seems to be a castle. Finally, we visit the medieval village of Domme and its spectacular view of the Dordogne river.
Our second night is spent at the imposing Château de Mercues, a four star hotel. The château sits atop a ridge 100 metres above the river Lot. In the past, it had been the summer residence of the Bishops of Cahors. In 1944, it became an hotel. General de Gaulle himself stayed here in 1951. He wrote: “From the Château de Mercues, you can feel the flow of history coming up to meet you.”
The Château has been owned since the 1980s by the Vigouroux family. In the 1970s, Mr. Vigouroux’s father reintroduced the Malbec grape from the Argentine to his nearby domaine at Haute Serre. This area around Cahors had been an important wine-growing area, even more important than that of Bordeaux, until the pest known as philoxera wiped out the vineyards in the 19th Century. Today, Cahors wines are in the top ten appellations in France. When Mr. Vigouroux bought the Château, he built an immense “cave” in the cellars which produces over 200,000 bottles of wine. His son now carries on the family tradition with the same passion as his father.
We are welcomed to the hotel by the 34 year old general manager, Yann Potet. It is impossible to meet a more charming or helpful person. Not least is the brilliant 32 year old chef, Julien Poisot, who cooked us a memorable meal based on the best local produce accompanied, of course, by Mr. Vigouroux’s wines from Mercues and Haute Serre.
The next morning after a good night’s sleep and what can only be described as the most delicious and abundant breakfast, we leave the hotel for a visit to Cahors. This is a French town as one likes them, authentic and without pretence, with a twice weekly market and good local shops. One shouldn’t miss a sight of the Pont Valentre, a perfectly preserved medieval bridge. We then drive to Saint Cirq la Popie, a village nestling within the side of a white limestone cliff overlooking the Lot. Andre Breton, the father of surrealism, lived here. A community of artists gathered round him and, to this day, this little village remains an artistic centre.
There are some hotels which touch your soul. The 17th century Château de la Treyne is one of them. The setting is magical with its utterly romantic terrace set above the Dordogne. To sit here, at cocktail hour, watching the sunset and the wide river flowing peacefully below can only be described as one of those special moments in time. Dinner in the Louis XIII dining room is a must. Not only is the setting authentic, but the meal, prepared by 1 Michelin star chef Stephane Andrieux, is a reminder that France is still at the top of its gastronomic tradition.
Philippe and Stephanie Gombert own the hotel. Stephanie has that rare ability to make each guest feel special and at home. Her taste is impeccable. This is reflected from the differently themed bedrooms, which are of the highest standard of comfort, to the decor of the Château as a whole.
This is a perfect base from which to visit the famous Gouffre de Padirac , a 103m deep chasm with a subterranean river that can be negotiated by punt; the beautiful medieval town of Sarlat which was restored thanks to the efforts of Andre Malraux, one of France’s most eminent Ministers of Culture; the pilgrim site of Rocamadour and its black virgin on the road to Santiago de Compostela; as well as the magnificent Jardins d’Eyrignac, a vast private garden noted for its perspectives of architecturally shaped box, yew and hornbeam.
Whatever you do, come to this lovely land at least once in your lifetime!
For further information, please visit www.relaischateaux.com.