French Chateaux and bastides
From the Basque country we headed north again, aiming for the southern Dordogne, but with a few diversions on the way. First stop was at Larressingle – a small plus beau village near Condom, complete with a small chateau and fortifications. A lovely place with very few people so we had a relaxing time exploring the grounds. It is surrounded by heavy fortified walls dating from the 13th century, which are still mostly intact, although the chateau inside is mostly derelict. One of our favourite villages so far.
The sole entry is across a stone bridge over the (now dry) moat and through the only gate in the walls. Inside as well as the chateau there is a small Roman style church and a number of smaller buildings and houses, some of which are even for sale, should you fancy living in a fortified village. Parking is a short distance outside – foot traffic only inside.
Larressingle has the distinction of being the smallest fortified town in France, with a circumference of around 300 m, but makes up in charm what it lacks in size. It was once a home to the medieval bishops from Condom and is on one of the major pilgrimage routes.
Larressingle is in Armagnac country, and we did try to buy some as we were driving through, but we were around during the lunch hour (12 to 2.30) when France is closed at this time of year. We did go into the first place we saw as the door was open, but were chased out in no uncertain terms. Oh well, we still have our Calvados.
Spent the night in Agen, which is not a particularly notable town, but quite pleasant and it wasa useful distance between Banca and the next stop Monpazier. Stayed in a newish little apartment with a kitchenette so we could cook our own meal for a change. Quite cosy, but very well equipped.
In the morning we visited the Agen Musee de Beau Arts. Quite a lovely little museum spread across four old houses. Had five Goyas, a Tinteretto and a few other interesting pieces, and almost no other visitors, so we could enjoy the paintings at our leisure.
Driving on, we came into the region of bastides. Bastides are fortified (usually) planned towns built in southwest France (mostly Languedoc, Gascony and Aquitaine) between about 1200 and 1400. Almost 700 such towns were built over this time, in a move to improve order and create economic opportunities. See; http://about-france.com/tourism/bastide-towns.htm for more information on their history. Most bastides follow a similar plan and are laid out around a central square, but there are variations due to geographical constraints. They became administrative and judicial centres.
Our first bastide was Monflanquin, founded in 1256 by Alphonse de Poitiers. Following his death it passed to the English for many years and it was strategically important in the hundred years war, but was eventually taken back by the French. These days it is a peaceful and very pretty tourist destination. A lovely little place. Next stop was at the nearby Chateau de Biron, one of many impressive and well preserved chateaux in this region. Final destination for the day was the village of Monpazier, also a bastide, in the southern Dordogne, where we stayed at the Hotel Edward 1er, which is in a stately old house. It is owned and run by a Dutch couple who have been there for 10 years and have done a superb job of doing the house up to be a comfortable and welcoming place.
The following day we drove towards Sarlat, which is recognised by UNESCO because of the number of original buildings. It is one of the most well known beau villages in France. It is charming, but somewhat touristy and a bit over hyped. We had visited Sarlat in 2006 in winter when it was closed and the weather was miserably cold and wanted to give it a second chance. It was certainly more enjoyable this time round but still a little underwhelming.
After Sarlat came Belves – a pretty village with a chateau, and then the Chateau de Chautaud. The next village was La Roque Gageac which could have been a very pretty village between the river and the cliffs, except for the road works all the way along the town. We still might have stayed and looked around a bit, and even stopped for lunch if we found somewhere suitable, except for a very officious parking warden. We did not feel like paying to park for a 15 minute stop to look around when the car park was mostly empty and when much bigger towns have the first hour free.
Then on to Domme which has a superb location on the top of a hill and a lot of history, including the imprisonment, torture and execution of many Templar knights. There are spectacular views over the river and valley below from the parapets. Went on the tour of the limestone caves under the town which are supposed to be amongst the best in this area, but again they were decidedly underwhelming. The tour was also expensive and in French only, so we would recommend avoiding it unless you speak French and have never been in a cave before. There are much better ones. The town itself is well worth a look.
Next day we spent relaxing around Monpazier and the hotel. Monpazier is a charming village and most of the locals are quite friendly, but not all. We bought some of the local walnut liqueur to try (not bad) on the first day from one of the shop owners after a lengthy discussion in our respective languages, and every time we saw him after that he would make a point of greeting us cheerily. The ladies in the patisserie were less friendly, but perhaps they were just employees and didn’t care if they lost custom. But overall we enjoyed our stay; it was a relaxing place, we had lovely weather and the hotel was good.