Southern France off-season - Part 1
Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
136Trip End Sep 01, 2011
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During the first 2 weeks of March we took a terrific drive through France (Dordogne, Provence, Riviera, Burgundy), Monaco, and even a touch of Italy before heading back to Amsterdam. We were traveling in the off-season - or as we learned, the CLOSED season - which definitely had it's pluses and minuses.
On the plus side, we had no competition for sites, restaurants or accommodations. We spent an hour in the Roman theater in Orange and didn't see another tourist. The tours to see Cro-Magnon cave art, which fill up months in advance in the summer, had last minute availability. On our drive through Europe's greatest canyon, on a road with bumper to bumper cars in summertime, we saw 3 other cars in 2 hours. And, best of all, we could show up anywhere at 9:45pm and find a decent room at a decent price.
On the downside, many things were closed. When trying to make reservations in advance, nearly 50% of the B&Bs contacted were not yet open for the season. In Dordogne, where caves are the big attraction, only 2 of the 5 listed in our guidebook were open. Many restaurants and minor attractions were closed or encased in scaffolding as the sites prepared for tourist season. And, of course, the weather was cooler and wetter than in high season. Still, it was an ideal vacation for us. We liked being the only people on the road, liked having our choice of (open) accommodations, and generally had a very relaxing, leisurely time with the tourist attractions to ourselves.
* We drove from Amsterdam to Beynac, in the Dordogne region of France, overnighting in Roye (1 hour before Paris) and stopping at Oradour-sur-Glane on our way from Roye to Beynac.
* After 2 nights and 1.5 days in Dordogne we drove to Carcassonne via Albi then on to Provence, staying 3 nights at a wonderful B&B outside of Arles.
* From Arles we drove (the longest way possible!) to Aix-en-Provence and then to the seaside town of Cassis, on the Mediterranean. After overnighting in Cassis, we continued along the coast to St. Tropez, where we spent the night before continuing through Cannes to Antibes, on the French Riviera.
* Two nights in Antibes allowed us to explore the coastal Riviera before we headed to Monaco and on to a small fishing village just over the Italian border.
*Coming back through Monaco we explored the Alpes-Maritime (aka the Inland Riviera) on our way to the Cotes du Rhone. From there we made a beeline to Burgundy (Beaune) for 2 nights and then home. Lots of territory for a 2 week vacation!
AMSTERDAM - BEYNAC: DORDOGNE
Our first night was spent in Roye, France. Having spent hours in Paris rush hour on previous trips, we chose to stay just outside Paris in order to drive on after the morning rush. Although there isn't much to see in Roye it was the ideal place to stay to time the run through Paris. The town must have been near the front in WWI judging from the early 20th century main church and town hall and photos outside the church showing the post-WWI damange. The next day, on our way to the Dordogne region, we stopped at Oradour-sur-Glane.
Oradour-sur-Glane is known as the Martyr Village. On June 10, 1944,the village was sealed off, looted and burned by Nazi troops. Women and children were locked in a church which was then set on fire while the men were disabled and burned in barns throughout the village. In all, 642 people were methodically massacred. The village was never rebuilt and today stands in ruin as it was left. In the graveyard there is a memorial housing items recovered from the burned out buildings such as watches stopped at the time their owners died, melted glassware, toys, and various other personal items. It was very moving and eerie walking through this ghost town of buildings in ruin.
After wandering the village, we continued to Beynac, in the Dordogne region of France.
The Dordogne is a very pretty area of France composed of many hills and valleys surrounding the Dordogne and other rivers. In the summertime it must be very lush and green. In late February it was still winter bare, but beautiful. There are many chateaus in the region and many scenic drives. We spent our first morning in the village of Sarlat, 1/2 hour from Beynac. We went to Sarlat on market day expecting the normal town market that we've become accustomed to in many European towns. We were amazed to find that Sarlat's market in HUGE. It fills multiple streets of the old town, spilling around corners and from one plaza to the next. This is by far the biggest and most varied market we've seen in all our European travels. As an example of one of the unique items: There was a guy selling prunes. Nothing but prunes. He had about 6 different grades at different prices which pretty much looked the same to us. This was the first market with a prune guy.
After stocking up on picnic provisions we went for a scenic drive through the river valley, stopping to admire impressive chateaus, often perched on high rocks. We saw lots of beautiful scenery and ended the day admiring the vertical village of Rocamadour. Rocamadour has long been a pilgrimmage town, containing both the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour, a complex of religious structures centered on a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary, and the tomb of an ancient saint. As an act of penance pilgrims used to regularly climb the 216 steps to the top of the rocky plateau on their knees!
The next day we visited Grotte Font-de-Gaume - one of the only caves containing pre-historic cave art which is still open to the public. The art is quite sensitive to environmental conditions so the number of visitors is limited to 200 per day. Some of it is quite difficult to see initially, but once our eyes adjusted to the dim light it was amazing. The paintings are multi-dimensional due to the artists' use of the contour of the cave to provide depth and volume to their otherwise flat paintings. For instance, buffalo shoulders are always on a bulge in the rock while the undersides are generally in a concave area. We saw many buffalo paintings as well as horses and reindeer. The outlines are also carved into the stone, so even when the paint is gone the evidence of a former painting often remains. The tour was in French only but luckily there was another American there who knew French and she translated for us.
BEYNAC - ARLES: LANGUEDOC
From Grotte Font-de-Gaume we drove to Albi to see the 13th century Ste. Cecil Cathedral then on to the double-walled city of Carcassonne. Albi is a fairly large town, but the cathedral still seems too large for the city. It has a beautiful ceiling and choir and a huge painting of the Last Judgement - which had to be partially cut out to make room for a new organ. Although Albi was a difficult city to drive through it was definitely worth the stop to see the cathedral.
We arrived in Carcassonne late that evening and spent much of the next day there. What a fairy-tale city! The old town has not one wall, but two! We walked the walls, wandered the narrow pedestrian-only streets, and marvelled at the beautiful stained glass windows in the basilica. We've heard from others that Carcassonne is a tourist-trap nightmare during tourist season, but for us, being there in off season, it was a quiet beautifully preserved town that we thoroughly enjoyed.
From Carcassonne we made our way to Provence. Stay tuned for Part 2!
Melanie and Chris
Where we ate:
Roye: Restaurant le Florentin - This restaurant, in the lobby of our hotel, was perfectly fine and very convenient after a long afternoon's drive. Good value for the money.
Beynac: La Petit Tonnelle - Great atmosphere and service with really good food too!
Sarlat: Le Petit Manoir: We had a wonderful lunch here. Terrific soup and the dessert was amazing too!
Carcassonne: Taverne du Chateau - Very casual tavern in the old town. Solid, cheap, local dishes. We had cassoulet - a combination of many meats and white beans in a tomato-based sauce.
And of course we had many picnics made from fresh market foods including local cheeses and wine, fresh fruit, baguettes and pastries. The most memorable of these was a very romantic late night picnic on the porch of our Beynac B&B overlooking several illuminated chateaus under a clear black sky littered with more stars than we've seen in a long time.
Where we slept:
Roye: Hotel Central: Perfectly clean and serviceable hotel room at a great price. Convenient stopping point for timing Paris traffic.
Beynac:: Le Petit Versailles - This very cozy stone farmhouse is beautifully situated above the town of Beynac overlooking the valley and several area chateaus. The hosts are warm and friendly and gave us the best restaurant recommendations of the whole trip (see Beynac and Sarlat restaurants, above). Breakfast was very good too - not just the normal croissant and baguette typical of many French hotels.
Carcassonne: Hotel Montmorency: This very clean and comfortable hotel shares it's reception with a much fancier 4* hotel. It is very conveniently located just outside the town walls and the staff are incredibly nice.
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