Provincial French Countryside: Part un (Toulouse to Sarlat)

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I really don’t even know where to begin to write about the fabulous time I had last month in France. I was fortunate to host a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with some great folks from North Carolina State, on a two-week Odysseys Unlimited tour called Provincial French Countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. I’ve always loved Odysseys itineraries – this is the fifth tour I’ve been lucky enough to host with this travel company – and this one did not disappoint. Here’s the first part of the trip:

TOULOUSE AREA

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Bonjour! We survived our trans-Atlantic flight to Paris and another flight to Toulouse. We arrived around noon and immediately checked into our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, located on the vibrant Capitole Square. The first day is always tough – you’re really tired from the travel but you don’t want to lie down or you’ll never get up. I like to keep moving, so I walked all over the central part of Toulouse, which is laid out kind of like spokes on a wheel, with Capitole Square being the center of the wheel.

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Eventually I got tired of walking and wanted something to eat, so I stopped at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the square and ordered a cheese plate and a beer. (The cheese plate was yummy and would have easily served three people. I am not complaining.) Tonight our group of 20 got together for introductions and an orientation by our group leader, Anita, and then we had a welcome dinner with wine. Nighty-night!

Next morning: Toulouse is a big city; it’s France’s fourth-largest metro area, with about 1.3 million people. Besides being darn pretty, its claim to fame is being the center of the European aerospace industry with the headquarters of Airbus located there. It also has a tantalizing indoor food market with the most beautiful bread and cheese!

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We honestly didn’t spend that much time in Toulouse except for dinners and sleeping, because this morning we ventured southeast to Carcassonne, a French hilltop town with the longest city walls in Europe.

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Anita told us all about the history, with battlements and ramparts dating back to first-century Romans. Mostly built in the 13th century, the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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After our tour, we had some time to explore on our own and eat lunch, but I much prefer to walk and take pictures (above), so I ate a Nutella crepe from a street vendor and called it lunch. Delicious!

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This afternoon and evening I walked with a group to explore the lovely cathedral Basilique St-Sernin (above), followed by a walk through the city and dinner on Capitole Square.

DORDOGNE VALLEY

By our third full day in France, everyone finally seemed over the initial time difference and we were eager to venture to our next overnight location: Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the beautiful Dordogne Valley. En route, we spent several hours in the stunning town of Albi, home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Here we visited his museum, and I gained a much greater appreciation of his life and art thanks to Anita. The museum is housed in a medieval fortress and has a tremendous formal garden that can be viewed from above.

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The whole town is breathtaking, especially when viewed from the Pont Vieux Bridge that crosses the River Tarn, which runs through the city. After our tour, a group of us gathered at a local eatery that specialized in pizza, despite Anita’s instruction to eat a local French delicacy, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. The pizza tasted wonderful. This area is famous for pastel – a yellow flower that produces a blue dye. Apparently it was very popular until indigo came along. You can still find pastel items in Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, and they are really gorgeous.

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We arrived in Sarlat this afternoon and took a walking tour of the town center (above). I kept expecting Belle from Beauty and the Beast to come strolling out with her book. This was just the most picturesque village I’d ever seen up to this point, with its medieval-era golden limestone buildings. This town has more registered historic sites than anywhere else in Europe. The countryside surrounding the town is also gorgeous, and we traveled through it to reach our hotel, the Hotel Meysset, which overlooks a valley that reminded me of Tuscany (below).

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I loved this place: The food was extraordinary (we ate three breakfasts and three evening meals here), the wine was exceptional, the rooms were all unique and wonderful. The terrace just beckoned you to sit and drink wine and enjoy the view. So we did. Every night.

With the Meysset as our home base, we explored the Dordogne region. The first full day there was pretty amazing, with a visit to the caves at Lascaux II. I wasn’t familiar with this story, but apparently in the 1940s these caves were discovered by some teenage boys, and they contained extraordinary animal paintings by Stone Age hunters created some 17,000 years ago. Lascaux II is actually a carefully rendered replica of the original cave, which was in danger of being destroyed by the huge number of visitors who flocked to see it. I have a pretty bad case of claustrophobia, but I managed to make it through the cave tour unscathed, and I thought it was incredible. (No photos allowed, so here’s a link to see the paintings.)

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En route to lunch, we stopped and walked through a tiny village that I think was called Leon something; I can’t find it on the map, but it was just adorable. It looked like a picture postcard. I could have stayed there for a week. See below:

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After one of the best lunches on the whole tour (above), at Le Cro Magnon restaurant in Les Eyzies (yes, there’s a lot of cave man stuff in this area), we continued on to a boat cruise along the Dordogne. The cruise itself wasn’t anything special, but the area is really beautiful and historic, with cliff-top chateaux and medieval towns. See pictures below:

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And then we went back to our wonderful hotel, with its stunning views of the valley, and we decided to do a group photo.

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We woke to rain the next morning, which was a darn shame because we spent the whole morning outside at the coolest marketplace throughout the village of Sarlat. Anita gave us an orientation tour, pointing out the best (breads, cheeses, mushrooms, pastries) and worst (sausage, foi gras) of the food vendors selling their wares. I loved this place!

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I paid to take an elevator to the top of a tower in the center of town to view the rooftops and learn more about the city (unfortunately, I was with a group of local people so the entire explanation about what we were seeing was in French; I didn’t understand one word, but it was still awesome).

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Later I fell on wet cobblestones and had to be hoisted up off the pavement by my armpits by a kind Frenchman. No serious injury except to my ego and my shattered camera filter (the lens was fine); I had a bruised knee and hip the next day, but it could have been a lot worse.

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This afternoon we visited the medieval town of Rocamadour, perched on top of a cliff set in a canyon. The town is religiously significant, with a 12th-century Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre Dame. I found the setting of the town pretty impressive.

The next day we left our beloved Hotel Meysset (Too soon! Too soon!) and headed toward the Loire Valley and the town of Saumur, where we would spend the next three nights.

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En route, we stopped for lunch in the small town of Le Dorat (above) at a cute and cozy little restaurant, then took a quick walk around the town — which had a mighty impressive cathedral and some lovely historic architecture — before getting back in the motorcoach for the rest of our journey.

Stay tuned for part deux!

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