Dotted with medieval towns, the French countryside east of Bordeaux offers more than just superb wine, writes Tess Paterson
Tess Paterson explores south-west France
We’ve settled in at our self-catering gîte near the town of Margueron in south-west France. It’s a restored barn with a cherry orchard for a garden and the sort of bucolic farmy surrounds that would have put Cézanne in a tizz. This is my kind of getaway, not so much a village as a hamlet, where a tractor trundling past is a notable event. Shutters are painted lilac; courtyards are gravel covered and clematis trails effortlessly over stone walls. More importantly, there’s duck confit on the menu at the local bistro.
Using the gîte as a base, we’re intent on discovering some ‘new’ territory. A few years back we’d explored the chateau country – the Dordogne and its attendant bastide towns that lie to the east of Bergerac. This time we’re on the west, roughly half way between Bergerac and Bordeaux. It’s f latter here, levelling out towards the Atlantic and those hallowed wine regions that f lank the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. We’re four wine novices, three of whom were born in the Karoo, and after months of anticipation, are tantalisingly close to legends like Latour, Pétrus and Lafite Rothschild. The much-fêted Saint-Émilion is just an hour away; if you’re after a good red blend this is pretty much the place to be.
On the first day we head to Duras – our nearest ‘big’ village and a medieval gem. Few things make me happier than arriving at a weekly market in the French countryside. We get there early – that peaceful pre-tourist interlude when all you’ll see are locals with woven shopping bags and wellmannered dogs. Set against the town’s mellow stone ramparts,
it’s a seasonal marvel of apricots, massive beef-heart tomatoes, minivans of colourful seedlings. There’s local honey, ham hocks, surprisingly cool bits of crochet. And my breakfast must-have, tray upon tray of canelés.
A few years back Wallpaper magazine declared canelés as the next cult cake, devoting an entire front cover to these crenelated beauties. I still have that recipe, though the reality is a two-day palaver involving 16 exorbitantly priced copper moulds coated with pure beeswax and clarified butter. It’s only fitting, I feel, to savour my first one in France. Slightly rubbery in texture, it’s all rum-custard sweetness with a caramelised, bronzy exterior. While the in-laws hover around the charcuterie stalls, I buy a substantial patisserie stash to keep me going.
By midday, the vineyards are calling and we head for Monbazillac – a serene setting overlooking Bergerac with an extraordinary past. During the Hundred Years’ War, the hillsides and vines to the north had been utterly decimated. Post-war, in around 1500, the unspoilt southern slopes were planted with vines; the antecedent of today’s AOC Monbazillac. With a Rapunzel-like appeal, the chateau itself dates to around 1550. The moat, parapets and
machicolation (nifty gaps used for pouring boiling oil onto invaders) are pure medieval defensive style.
Interminable feuding aside, Monbazillac is renowned for its dessert wines – by all accounts a worthy competitor to the prestigious Sauternes. Jamie Oliver enthused about the 2011 vintage, declaring “honeyed notes offset with a tinge of grapefruit and elderf lower”. Well quite. We decide on a bottle of the Chateau St Christophe, and later on our patio, savour this golden nectar chilled. With a wedge of velvety foie gras and a country baguette from the Duras market, it’s a little moment of heaven.
The next day we come across Château Puyfromage, an attractive winery that’s easily spotted by its sizeable pigeonnier. As outré as it might seem today, pigeons were a hot topic in the Middle Ages – not only as a delicacy, but for the droppings which made excellent fertiliser. Owning a structure of this magnitude was a seigneurial privilege – up there with a healthy stash of Apple or Alibaba shares today. Ewa Bobet, who takes us on a tour of the estate, explains that the pigeonnier would have housed around 4 000 birds. The interior is a marvel, with ancient chestnut beams, towering walls lined with 1 000 compartments or boulins, and an ingenious rotating ladder.
For a memorable week we roam about, sustained by regular intakes of pain au raisin and icy Jupiler beer. Christopher, the mohair farming brother-in-law, is in his element. On day one, he pulls over and leaps out of the car to admire a breed of taupe-coloured cattle. We lose him regularly throughout the trip, as he hives off into barns to photograph machinery or gazes intensely at pristine fields of wheat. Most gratifying are his lengthy chats with bemused Bordeaux farmers who genuinely don’t speak a word of English.
The medieval village of Issigeac is all meandering smalltown charm and full-blown roses. We find a tiny café selling ice cream cones and later settle in for a beer beneath the
shadow of the Gothic church. At La Sauvetat du Dropt nearby, we shoot the breeze with a lovely old gent in a flat cap who’s fishing off a bridge just metres from his house. In Pellegrue, a town of around 1 000 people, there’s an electric car-charging station opposite the immaculate small cemetery. It’s utterly peaceful and a moving memorial to countless lives lost, notably at Dunkirk. Nearby, the 12th-century church overlooks a private garden bathed in dappled summer light – a million miles from our electric-fenced city life.
Saint-Émilion proves to be a good morning out – it’s hilly and beautifully maintained and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s definitely a touristy feel, but then viticulture’s been thriving here since Roman times. Today the appellation is one of the biggest wine producing regions in Bordeaux. After several tastings and a must-do meander around the edge of the town, we round up Christopher from a nearby field and head on our way.
The in-laws are keen to give canoeing a bash, so we opt for an outing on the Vézère River, about 100km away. After getting spectacularly lost we arrive at Les Eyzies, kit up and climb into a minibus. We’re dropped off 10km upstream, with a serene two-hour paddle back down. A worthwhile alternative is to canoe the Dordogne, with its stunning views of the monolithic Beynac Castle and Castelnaud. Either way, being water-bound on a still summer’s day is wonderfully relaxing.
Bordeaux is our last stop – a port city of remarkable elegance and well worth a few days’ exploring. Short on time we start with a few key attractions – the vast ref lecting pool (brilliant), the Place des Quinconces with its effusive, overblown statuary and La Cité du Vin – a bulbous shimmering homage to an industry forever synonymous with France. It’s a fitting end to a fabulous tour. Cheers!
A 14th-century pigeonnier overlooks the vineyards at Château Puyfromage.
The picturesquerooftops of Saint-Émilion.
Market day in the medieval town of Duras.
The garden of our gîte in Margueron.
Stone houses on the banks of the Dropt River.
La Madeleine, part of the troglodyte village above the Vézère River.
Bordeaux’s mirror pool oppositethe Place de la Bourse.
Canelés for sale at St Émilion.
Seasonal apricots grown in Roussillon.
Coasting down the peaceful Vézère River.
The vineyards surrounding our gîtenear Margueron.
Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin on the banks of the Garonne River.