Our arrival in France was uneventful, and we navigated through immigration, the airport, and rental car with minimal issues or drama. Dianne and I were exhausted, but excited about our trip. Total travel time was ~30 hours from the time we left our house on Friday morning until we arrived at Bel Estiu on Saturday evening. One thing that we will strongly suggest is looking at the scheduling. We chose four flights to get from A to B because of cost, but it really is an easier travel day if your budget allows you to make single connection.
19 March 2017
We were up and at it pretty early after a couple of presses of the snooze button. Emilie had breakfast prepared consisting of [French, though that seems a bit redundant…] bread and croissant, jamon and cured bacon, fresh homemade kiwi preserves and store-bought apricot preserves, chopped fresh fruit, and a slice of orange cake. It was all good, though we did not eat all of it. Our cassoulet from the previous evening kept us feeling full.
We started our adventure, and we were off to the caves at Combarelles for an 0930 tour. Combarelles are one of only two actual caves with pre-historic art that are still open to the public. The tour was in French, with a total of seven people attending. The tour guide engaged Dianne and I, freely answering questions, but she told us we should ask for a refund because there are English tours available. She spoke English fluently. We saw several etchings of horses, aurochs [pre-historic ancestors of cattle], a lion[!] and several other things. Seeing these things did not require imagination; they were all thoughtfully and exceptionally drawn.
After we left Combarelles, we took a drive. Dianne wanted to see more of the Dordogne country side, and I am always up for that. We drove up to another pre-historic site, one that we knew was closed, but we made the drive anyway. Sure enough, it was closed. We drove to another site, following some signs to the troglodyte installation at La Roque St Christophe. It is a huge troglodyte site that was permanently inhabited for 55,000 years. At its height in the Middle Ages, the village held as many as 1000 inhabitants. It was a very interesting place, 80m high, about 1km long, and five different living levels.
From there, we drove back toward Les Eyzies, the location of our 1600 appointment to tour the Grotte de Font de Gaume. We made an hour stop at Grand Roc, another troglodyte cliff dwelling, but we did not get out of the car. We took a power nap! We had been feeling really sleepy, so we rested, then headed on back to Gaume.
The tour at Gaume was in English, and we were joined on this tour by a British couple on holiday. The cave art was fascinating! This cave has 82 drawings of buffalo, plus some reindeer, horses, and one drawing of a very large deer species that is now extinct. The drawings were done, 150m inside a cave, 15,000 years ago by Cro-Magnon men. We have the advantage of modern lighting; they had to do it with light by fire. The caves were narrow and mostly short, but there is one section that soars to about 10m high. It is beautiful, and there are many drawings at about 5m, meaning those Cro-Magnons built scaffold inside that cave to paint like that. 100m inside the cave, in the middle of what had to be intense darkness, and something motivated them to paint these creatures. We were very fortunate to be able to see this place; Gaume has reduced visitors to not more than 78 per day. It would not be a surprise to see this place closed to the public, like has been done with most of the other caves with pre-historic art. Travel tip: Book well in advance. We booked this tour in January, but if you are traveling in the high season, we suspect an even longer lead time will be required.
From Gaume, we returned to our place, a quick freshening up, then back out to dinner at the La Coulverine in Sarlat. Emilie had called that morning to make a reservation for us. We got there about 45 minutes ahead of our appointment, so we walked down into the historical center of Sarlat. There is just something about centuries-old buildings. The stone work and timber-frame is beautiful.
We walked back up the hill to La Coulverine for our 1930 reservation. Dianne had roasted duck breast, and I had sea bream. I also had an appetizer course of duck confit spring rolls; we shared it, and they were delicious. Dianne had a chocolate ganache with chopped apples and sweet carrots, and I had an apple dessert that was almost a flan-like cream inside a candy apple shell. Dianne finished the meal with a cafe au lait. Back to Bel Estiu, we wrote in our travel journals, and we called both sets of folks. Alarm set for 0800.
20 March 2017
I snoozed the alarm a couple of times, then Dianne was up and showered. She got ready while I showered. We took our time during breakfast, talking with Emilie about life, travel, and politics. We talked about the Orly attack on 18 March, and then she asked the question: Trump. Last year, folks we met in France and Italy were fascinated by Trump, and it seems that has not changed. At least for Emilie, she saw it as a part of the backlash against career politicians, and I think she is right. France was in the midst of their own anti-establishment campaign for president; Marine Le Pen is the ultra-right [for France] candidate who was gathering a lot of attention at the time. Side note: Le Pen is one of the two candidates in the run-off election in early May.
We had a really nice, long chat with Emilie with a walk around her garden and out to the pool. It was a really comfortable exchange. We did not leave until 1230p, but it was worth it for the time we got to spend talking to our new friend, Emilie.
We drove to Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac to visit the fabulous gardens there. It is about 30 minutes from Bel Estiu, and that is fortunate because one of us forgot to leave the key for our room. I took the key back to Emilie while Dianne toured the gardens. An hour later [and I hope no speeding ticket to go along with it because I did not see the camera until I was right on top of it…] I was back. We rejoined, and started the two hour drive to Saint Emilion for our first winery appointment in Bordeaux.
We were running late, but it ultimately did not matter; we could not find Jean-Louis Trocard, so we headed to Puynormand to find our b&b. And there again, it was easier said than done. The GPS coordinates our hostess had sent took us to a place that could best be described as less desirable. We were really concerned that we had found our first Airbnb stinker. We drove around the small village a bit more, and just as we were about to surrender, we drove up a little street, and I saw the sign on the gate for Mamie and Papi’s place! And it looked just like the pictures on the Airbnb listing.
It was a bit eclectic, and comfortable, welcoming, and warm. We had tea with our hosts, then headed out to Saint Emilion for dinner.
We parked at the top of the hill, and walked down the rough, steep cobbles into the center of the old town. We looked at menus as we walked, then at 1930, walked back up to our first choice. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Monday, so we crossed the street to the restaurant next door.
Dianne said she was ‘ducked out’ so we ordered from the prix fixe menu and got the b’ouef per duex. Dianne said that was what she wanted, and I was not opposed, though I was concerned about the amount of food. The menu said it was 1,2 kg [1.2 kg in our lexicon, or about 2.5 pounds!]. When the food came, Dianne was shocked. She had not noticed the amount. We ate as much as we could, though we left at least 0.75 pounds of meat. And we still had dessert, but we were stuffed.
Back to the b&b and off to bed for some much needed rest. When we got back, Mamie had closed all of the shutters, and had turned on a small space heater to supplement the heat in our room. It was perfectly comfortable, and we slept well.
21 March 2017
An early rise to the morning, breakfast that we barely ate because we were still full from dinner, and off to Sauternes. It took a little longer to get down there than we thought, and we had to stop for fuel on the way, so we arrived at Chateau Guiraud at just a minute or so past our 0930 appointment. We were greeted warmly by Mathilde, our hostess for our first winery visit of this trip. She took us back out in the cold to look over the vineyards and the 17th century path that ran from Bordeaux to Toulouse, passing the chateau. We talked about the organic farming practices at Guiraud, she showed us one of the ‘bug hotels’ where they house beneficial pests, and then we went into the winery. We discussed terroir, wine making in Sauternes, and lots of great information. Guiraud makes at least seven passes through the vineyards during harvest, and they harvest the fruit berry-by-berry; it seems insane, knowing how much work it is to harvest whole clusters! In this trailing edge of the off-season, we were the only folks visiting Guiraud that morning, but we were treated like we were the most important guests they had seen all year. It was a very welcoming place.
Back to the tasting room, and we tasted a couple of the current releases from Guiraud. The wines were incredible. I had become a Sauternes fan before, but this just made me love it more. As we were wrapping our visit, Xavier [the managing partner, one of four friends that bought Guiraud in 2006 from corporate ownership], and Julien, the representative for Guiraud from the cooperage Tonnellerie Marchive, came into the tasting room. Xavier greeted us and we introduced ourselves. He thanked us for being there, and then Mathilde told him we had a vineyard in the states. He asked if we were ‘in sales or in production’, and Dianne and I both said production. Xavier and Julien were headed to the cellar to sample from barrel, and they invited us to join them for that effort! Xavier’s son, Luc, walked in at that moment, and replaced his father for this exercise. It was an almost unbelievable ‘extra’ experience. Julien engaged with Dianne and I, and he was very helpful as he translated the conversations between Luc and the cellar master.
We left Guiraud and drove around the area of Sauternes. Our next appointment was not until 230p, so we saw the sights of the country side. After a little drive and a short walk, we drove to Chateau Rabaud-Promis, another 1st Grand Cru Sauternes house, for our afternoon appointment.
At Promis, we arrived a few minutes early, then got out of the car and started toward the tasting room. Thomas DeJean, the owner and ninth generation of his family to run this vineyard, greeted us. I gave him a business card, and he wanted to know more about growing grapes in NC. We were treated to a discussion of the Sauternes terroir and wine making, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the philosophy and practices of the two 1st Cru Sauternes producers. Thomas took his time, explained the steps and his blend [about 80% Semillion, 20% Sauvignon Blanc], and we walked through the winery and barrel room.
As we were leaving the production area, he said, “I never do this.” And he asked if we would like to sample the 2016 juice from barrel. Of course! What a wonderful bonus, and it was especially gratifying because it is not something he does normally. Over the next few weeks, he was expecting members of the wine press [Neal Martin and James Suckling specifically, but others too] and they will do barrel samples, but he said, “You tasted 2016 before the wine journalists. That is something we have never done before.”
Off to the tasting room where we sampled the 2011 second wine, Raymond Louis, named for his grandfather, the 2010 1st Grand Cru, Rabaud-Promis, and a sample of the 2003 Rabaud-Promis. All three were delightful, with the 2011 Raymond Louis lacking the longevity of the 2010, and the 2003 lacking the acidity to balance the wine as well as the 2010. It was a wonderful experience, and we will remember it forever. We have to, because we lived the moment and neither of us took a single picture. [Note: Actually, Dianne took one picture, in the tasting room, and we share that with you above.]
Back to Puynormand, and by the time we got back to the b&b, it was 1730 and we were both just dragging. We took another nap… The jet lag on this trip was worse then we have experienced before. Our nap turned into missing dinner because we slept until nearly 2100. We got up, had a spot of tea, and wrote in our journals. I suspect tomorrow morning, we will leave very little of our breakfast uneaten.