Exclusive: A French Affaires Guide to Southwest France

Above image: Bordeaux

As we have been emphasizing in recent stories on Italy’s Emilia Romagna, Portugal’s Porto, and some of our other favorite but less touristed cities on the great continent of Europa (Annecy, Lugano, Matera…), surviving a deadly pandemic should hopefully have reminded us to do the things and see the places we’ve been putting off for far too long. Sure, we’re as chuffed as ever for an exciting new hotel opening in Paris; but there is obviously so much more to France than the capital and, well, Provence.

To wit, the glorious Southwestern region, which certainly puts a lot of Bordeaux on our tables every day, but is otherwise fairly well an enigma to American travelers – even those who might count themselves amongst the mildly Francophilic. To be sure, names like Aquitane, Dordogne, Gascony and Midi Pyrénees still have the ring of exoticism about them. And right now the thrill of new discovery sounds very much like the ideal travel therapy, following eighteen months of being forced to stare at our same four walls – especially when there are imposing 14th Century castles just waiting to be awed by.

Grand Hotel Intercontinental Bordeaux

Above all, Southwestern France is an epicure’s paradise, known for its, “Wines, foie gras, truffles, walnuts, cheeses, duck, game, lamb and various spirits, including the wonderfully earthy Armagnac,” says Elizabeth Seitz, Dallas native and founder of French Affaires. Hers is a singularly unique company, offering travel planning, specialized talks and classes, and wonderfully detailed planned trips, all focused around all things France. This autumn, the agency is offering Fall in Southwest France, as well as a Southwest France Photography Tour – and Seitz insists it’s the perfect season to visit there.

She describes the region as, “still steeped in glorious French history and tradition, from medieval villages clinging to sheer cliffs to majestic fortress castles overlooking the Dordogne River to ancient cave paintings, exquisite topiary gardens and lush vineyards. It offers amazing opportunities to travel through time and culture.”

With France having just last month begun welcoming American travelers back, we engaged Ms. Seitz to devise a list of Southwestern France favorites and must-sees, from castles to caves, and from sand dunes to Saturday markets.

A French Affaires Guide to France’s Southwest

Bordeaux

This city of nearly a million people is the region’s biggest, full of striking 18th Century architecture. Check into the Grand Hotel Intercontinental in the center of town, and request a room with a view over the famed Bordeaux Opera house. Make your first stop Maison Lemoine for one of the city’s famous cannelés pastries…an outwardly caramelized, inwardly custardized mini cake in a bundt shape. Visit the very mod Musee du Vin, which charts the history of wine making in the world and offers special tastings, before checking out the digital art sound and lights show in the former German concrete submarine base Bassins de Lumieres. Stop for a photo op at the magnificent 18th century Place de la Bourse, with its modern ‘miroir d’eau’…and finally, stroll the romantic Pont de Pierre over the Garonne river at night.

Sarlat

The medieval town of Sarlat is a must-see in Southwest France, even more so on Saturdays, when it really comes alive for the sprawling weekly food market. You can tell a French region by its food markets and Sarlat’s is no exception – duck, geese, local walnuts, Perigordine strawberries, regional cheeses and more tempt the eye as well as the palate. 

Sarlat

Vezere River Valley

Certified as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, the “World Capital of Prehistory” boasts fifteen caves and sites which tell the story of human civilization since prehistoric times. Rouffignac, Font de Gaume and Les Eyzies are among the few remaining authentic sites still open to the public. Even if caves and cave art are not your thing, you’ll be wowed by the rich artistry of human beings from long ago.

Château de la Treyne

If you had to choose one chateau in which to stay in France, Château de la Treyne near Rocamadour would be it. Set in a formal French garden overlooking the Dordogne river, it is surrounded by more than 250 acres of pristine meadows and forests. Luxury, authenticity and comfort are the watchwords here, an experience carefully cultivated by owners Stephanie and Philippe Gombert. A favorite room is the Louis XIII suite, decorated with luscious fabrics and antiques, including the four-poster bed. The Michelin-starred restaurant is set in a gorgeous Louis XIII dining room, with the beef tenderloin and foie gras not to be missed.

Chateau de la Treyne

Saint-Émilion

Land is so precious for wine-making in Saint-Émilion that vineyards come right up to the ramparts of the town. Have lunch at the casually elegant Logis de la Cadene in the heart of the medieval town, followed by a private tour of the fascinating Monolithic Church, which towers above the quaint village streets. It’s possible to get the key to the church tower from the Saint-Émilion tourist office and climb the worn stone steps to the top for views beyond imagination.  

Dordogne River Boat Tour

The principal means of travel and commerce in centuries gone by, the gabarre is a flat bottomed boat that now offers visitors a unique perspective of the Dordogne River valley, with many towering chateaux rising up on the cliffs above. Local companies offer boat tours from the picturesque ‘ports’ of Roque-Gageac, Beynac and Bergerac.

Saint-Émilion

Arcachon and the Dune of Pyla

West of Bordeaux about 45 minutes lies the charming seaside resort town of Arcachon, with its stunning natural wonder the Dune of Pyla. An ever-growing sand dune of epic proportions with the Atlantic on one side and deep pine forests on the other, it’s best to kick your shoes off and just set out walking on this extraordinary sandpile. The views from the top are well worth the hike.

Le Medoc and the Chateau Road

The Medoc is home to wide Atlantic beaches (great for walking, but watch the strong surf), towering pine forests, rolling ranchland and of course the legendary Route des Chateaux running through such mythic wine villages as Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac and Margaux, just to name a few. With vineyards as far as the eye can see producing wines that make it to the top wine cellars in the world, tasting visits to the wineries (Chateau du Taillan, Chateau d’Arsac, Chateau Margaux) here are a must. Note that visits are by appointment and hard to come by, especially at top wineries, so get a local guide or your favorite wine merchant to get you in – and order a few cases to be shipped to your own wine cellar back home. 

Chateau Margaux

Rocamadour

This sacred village etched into the cliffside overlooking a tributary of the Dordogne river always amazes no matter how many times one takes it in. A private guided visit of this place of pilgrimage, with its myriad chapels and sanctuaries, is an absolute must – as is treading the 216 steps of Le Grand Escalier, which penitents in days gone by would mount on their knees in an act of voluntary or forced penitence. Fortify oneself at the French restaurant Jehan de Valon, with its scenic views over the valley below, and order the roast leg of lamb with garlic accompanied by the house made gratin of potatoes, washed down with a red wine from Cahors. And the local goat cheese called Rocamadour is another terrific regional taste treat. 

Monpazier, Domme and Eymet

Who knew medieval town planning could look so good? Southwest France is home to the country’s largest collection of bastide towns – generally defined as a centrally planned urban location with streets in a grid pattern set around a town square. Monpazier, Domme and Eymet are some of the most beautiful examples, and offer lovely opportunities to stroll, dine and shop. 

Domme

Manoir d’Eyrignac

Manoir d’Eyrignac is a stunning French estate not far from Sarlat which boasts some of the most beautiful gardens in all of France. The property has been in the same family for more than 500 years. While the continually expanding gardens are usually considered the main attraction, with extraordinary topiaries, water features, allees of trees and more, being hosted for drinks inside the gorgeous manor house by the owner Monsieur Patrick Sermadiras is a star attraction for our travel guests.

Land of 1001 Castles

The Dordogne region, also called Le Perigord, is home to hundreds of stunning chateaux, earning it the title “Land of 1001 Castles,” no small feat in a country like France which is overflowing with them. Many are perched strategically atop formidable cliffs overlooking rivers, testifying to their dramatic role in the history of the area, particularly during the 100 Years War between the French and the English. Chateaux not to miss include Hautefort, Castelnaud, Commarque, and Losse. But nothing beats touring the oh-so-atmospheric medieval Chateau de Beynac, followed by the precipitous descent through the winding cobblestone streets of the village below.

Chateau de Beynac

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