By Isabelle Spicer:
One of the good things about traveling in France is the high-speed trains. They are very reliable – when the railway men are not on strike – and very comfortable. From Paris, you can go to Marseille in the Mediterranean in only 3 hours, to Brussels in Belgium under an hour and a half, and to London in a little more than two.
However I am taking you today the Perigord, a part from France where high-speed trains do not go, and the life there is accordingly slow – and sweet. Our end stop, the Manoir d’Hautegente, a manor from the 13th century, located in Coly, is close to … to… Wait a minute, it is not close to any big city. It is not at the seaside, not at the mountain. So what is the point of going there? Everything: food, culture, history, magnificent landscapes, lifestyle, and did I mention food? Portrait of a hidden gem, where you will find only few American tourists.
I was born and grew up in Paris, but I have been living abroad for the past six years. I have now settled in Washington, DC. Now used to American standards, I was going to rediscover my own country. (This trip took place last July).
Our trip started in Paris, where we decide to book a taxi using the company Taxi Bleu, a very reliable one. If you do not speak French, they will transfer you to an English-speaking employee. But please do note that Parisian taxis start the meter on the way to pick you up: the meter already showed 12 euros before we were even in the car. The total amount of the 5-minute ride amounted to 20 euros (including a charge for each piece of luggage), a total rip – even if completely legal. On the way back the same ride cost only 8 euros. So it is better to try and hail a taxi in the street, but plan accordingly since it can sometimes be tricky to find a cab, especially during rush hour.
Our train leaves from the Gare d’Austerlitz, a train station which is hardly used anymore for long distance trips. We travelled first class, which is hardly more expensive that second class if you book your ticket in advance (sometimes the price difference is as little as 20 euros). Tickets are on sale three months before the travel day. You can book your tickets online: RailEurope.com .
Keep in mind that your train ticket will not be valid until you punch it in the little yellow machines you find everywhere near all platforms.
The train is pretty comfortable, even if not as much as the high-speed train. The advantage of the “slow” trains is that you have time to discover the beautiful landscapes the train winds across. You can buy food and drinks (even beer and wine) from a food cart.
Neither my husband nor I like to drive, so we decide to book a cab for our trips during our 4 days stay: Allo Taxi Noel : +1 33 5 53 50 68 62 or + 1 33 6 83 53 78 18. The total cost was 150 euros. If we had rented a car, it would have been about 240 euros for 4 days. If you decide to rent a car, there are three companies located right outside the train station. My French friends usually book through a website. The earlier you book, the cheapest the price, especially during the high season (July-August).
Taxi fares in the provinces can be really expensive, so I would strongly advise to negotiate prices in advance. We used a private small company recommended by our hotel.
Carole, the owner’s wife, was our driver. She arrived 5 minutes late and instead of apologising, started complaining about how the traffic was awful, how she could not park, etc… My (Canadian) husband and me looked at each other and had a non-verbal conversation meaning “Welcome back to grumpy France”. However, once we broke the ice, she turned out to be the sweetest person, driving a longer way than necessary to show us a beautiful sights, stopping for pictures, etc… Not what a regular taxi driver on a fixed price would do.
We arrived in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a small city located in Corrèze, the nearby department. Weather was cloudy, but Carole reassured us: as soon as we go to where we are going, the weather would be sunny. It is amusing how many French people think that the place where they live benefits from a micro-climate.
Le manoir d’Hautegente: a pure bliss
We were greeted at the gate by a roadsign: “Slow down, be careful of the ducks”. Do not worry, the ducks there are just to look at, not the ones you are going to eat for dinner. You know you have arrived in southern France when you hear the sound of the crickets. We are warmly welcomed by Marie-Josée Hamelin. She is originally from Quebec, speaks perfect English, and is married to the owner. As with all the other people we have met, it is the outsiders who talked about the region with the most passion.
The Manoir d’Hautegente, a four-star hotel, has been in the family since 337 years. It was an ancient forge dating from the 13th century. It went through two tragedies, but each time rose from the ashes like a phoenix. Destroyed during the Second World War, it was rebuilt with the original stones, in an identical way. Then in the 80’s, the family lost the property following a bankruptcy of their company. The Mayor of the City used his special right to buy it before it was auctioned, and then leased it to the family until they fully paid it back recently.
To rightly describe the Manoir, one would need one of these futurist multi-sensorial computers, where you could hear the constant ambient sound of the river flowing down a small waterfall, and smell the ashes of the big fireplace. Do not expect wild nature; here every single bush is trimmed with the most exquisite taste and landscaping rises to an art form. A maze-like bush hides a beautiful (non heated) swimming pool.
Our room is covered with Asian rich tapestry that you usually find in posh Parisian apartments. The furniture is composed of antiques gathered by the family. The result is beautiful, but also very welcoming: you do not feel like in a museum where you barely dare touch anything. The bathroom is spacious with a shower and a bathtub. Every single detail is thoughtful: the soap use herbal scent that makes you feel right away in South France. The view, coupled with the soothing sound of the waterfall, has an immediate calming effect. It is a very good place to disconnect with the virtual world. However, if you absolutely need to, there is a computer available for customers, as well as a room with Wifi access.
Young chef for amazing food
One of the big assets of the region is the food. When I mentioned to my French friends I was going to Perigord, every single one told me; “You are going to eat well”. Oh boy was that true. The Manoir d’Hautegente also hosts a “restaurant gastronomique”. For the same price as an average restaurant in Paris (35 euros), you can taste the “menu découverte”: watermelon soup with goat cheese, followed by duck carpaccio, then skate with celery purée. Fig tart and sherbet for dessert. Both my – Canadian- husband and I are foodies, but I can tell it was the best food I ever had. Until you actually meet him, you would never believe that the Chef, Frederic Pilon, is so young. He and his girlfriend are trying to save money to go on a trip around the world. Note that the Chef can also accommodate vegetarian.
For lunch time, you can head to the nearby village, a short walk from the Manoir, to La Table de Jean, also owned by the Hamelin family. The prix fixe menu costs only 12 euros; for that price you will eat in a retro-style café featuring hearty but carefully-crafted regional cuisine. On the walls, you can see black and white pictures of the actual villagers.
The Lascaux Caves: back to the origins of humanity
While in the region, there is a lot to see and to do: visit the 1000 year-old city of Sarlat (it is best to visit it off-season (in June or September for instance), since it can get really crowded; fishing in the 2 km private fishing beat of the Manor, kayaking on the Dordogne, and so on. Since I am an artist, my interest goes to the Lascaux caves, which were discovered exactly 70 years ago and where you can see Upper Palaeolithic art. You cannot visit the original cave because the massive presence of tourists has damaged the cave walls. What you see is Lascaux II, an incredible copy of the original. The topography has been reproduced square inch by square inch. The copy was made using the same pigments as back then.
Visiting the Lascaux caves requires a bit of planning since it can be a bit crowded in the summer. You can book your tickets in advance by phone and pick it up directly at the entrance of the cave. Tip : Strangely enough, the week-ends are less busy days, when tourists arrive and depart from rental apartments.
Night Market at Saint Genies: socializing around food
Every single little village in Dordogne has a castle, a church, a manor or a mansion, which is an architectural gem. According to local people, you could spend two years there and still have things to discover in this “region blessed by Gods”. Not all castles belonged to aristocrats. Our taxi driver Amar tells us the story of a castle belonging to pirates: built on the river, they attacked the wine convoys going down the Dordogne.
Enchanted by our food experience so far, we decide to go to a night market in a small village. Our taxi was scheduled to pick us up in three hours time. We arrive 10 minutes before the opening of the market, and there is nobody around. What are we going to do in this small village for 3 hours? We go visit the 12th century Church. When we are back on the market square, a big crowd has magically appeared, sitting next to each other on long tables. We squeeze in between two groups. You can buy your food at booths and then it is cooked in front of you. We have duck foie gras with Sarladaise potatoes, the specialty of the region. If you are vegetarian, you are in trouble there, but you could still eat a pizza. If you are vegetalian, just forget it or bring your own food.
André, a retired teacher sitting next to us, snorts at me when he sees I am going to drink a soda with my foie gras (I guess I spent too much time in the United States…). I am a bit hurt but the ice is broken, and we talk for 2 hours, about the region, our experience is the United States, etc… They offer us lots of their wine. It is a good opportunity to meet with local people; as they tell us “We are not here for the food, we are here to meet people and our friends”.
My huband and I leave the region with one promise: We will be back!
NOTE: This trip was sponsored in part by Manoir d’Hautegente.