Donkey lawnmowers and fairytale villes – a mini escape to the Dordogne

I am blinded by beauty: the colours seem so much brighter here than at home. Yes the sun is beating down without even a fluff of stratus to mottle the gloriously blue sky, but I swear I’m not imagining it; everything just looks so alive and vivid. The hour’s drive from Limoges airport to our gîte was spent with my nose pressed against the window. The winding roads of the countryside in the Dordogne felt a bit like home actually, but just on a really, really good day. And without a pothole in sight! As we drove through the hamlet where we were staying I realised I had that blissfully happy grin I wear when I’m taking in somewhere both peaceful and exciting. Sarrazac is the definition of a hamlet; ‘was that it then?’ I seem to remember asking. I was happy. Just an hour and half’s flight from home but I had already switched off and felt my laptop hunch melting away.

Rustic charm: the renovated farmhouse

As we took a left down a lane lined with orchards, the gîte came into view. It was the kind of French home I imagined in novels.

View from the gîte

Secluded in its own land and exuding that rustic charm you drool at in ‘A place in the Sun’, I felt a world away from work, emails and the relentless pace of home. We were so lucky – I know friends who have hunted around for holiday homes for weeks on end to find this idyll we were about to enjoy for a few days. But we were visiting friends who had spent years renovating this stunning French property and we were most grateful guests indeed.

It felt like home. Probably because I wished it were my house! Just looking at it was a sigh of pleasure. It was a stunningly restored farmhouse; the windows still looked out behind the original wooden shutters at the lush landscape. Not to mention the pool! I’m still a little kid when it comes to swimming pools, splashy splashy.

‘Adventurising’

Of course, I can’t be horizontal for long, so after some unwinding it was time to get adventurising! I know, I know, that’s not a real word but the boy and I say it so much it feels like one now. So there.

The Dordogne makes for some picturesque cycling

There are some great cycling routes around the Dordogne and something to suit all abilities. It was over 30 degrees every day we were there so we didn’t plump for a hardcore mountain bike trail, as if! In that heat, a wee jaunt would do nicely. There are hardly any cars round here so it’s pretty safe to follow the roads through the countryside to take in the awesome view. We saw a deer bounding along in front of us if you don’t believe how undisturbed I say it was.

Unspoilt nature is dotted with the odd quaint home covered in gorgeous flowers and wisteria, blending perfectly into the countryside. I love biking on holiday – it’s a great way to explore your surroundings and lets you slow down enough to take it all in.

Canoeing in Brantôme

About half an hour away from Sarrazac is Brantôme. I’d read it was sometimes known as the Venice of the Dordogne, but I think that’s going a bit far. There is a river around the centre of the town, the river Dronne, so okay there was some water. Italian exaggerations aside, this place feels like you’ve stepped into a classy Disneyworld.

Benedictine abbey, built by Charlemagne in 769

It’s what fairytales are made of and within ten minutes of arriving we agreed we’d like to come back again. Wandering around the town has you gazing at the architecture, which is a mixture of medieval and renaissance.

Foie gras is just ordinary fayre here, but it won't be on my menu!

And this town must be a real find, because I couldn’t find a tat shop anywhere! Souvenirs were mainly tubs of foie gras – it’s sold in practically every shop.

A visit to Brantôme wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the town from a canoe. There are a few canoe hires around the circular part of the river: we went with ‘allo canoes’. Couldn’t complain about the value of this adventure at all – it was €10 for two of us in a two-man canoe.

Circling Brantôme from the water

It’s ideal for families and kids as it’s a fairly gentle paddle, but there are options to go on full day excursions with white water promised. If we do go again I’ll be giving that a go. As it was, we only had an afternoon there and had spent most of that enjoying the most delicious lunch I can remember in a long time. Au Fil de L’Eau is a gourmet bistro on the water’s edge. Under large parasols and looking out at the river, I feasted on mouth-wateringly succulent duck… and the tarte citron was enormous. It’s a wonder we didn’t sink the canoe.

The next chapter in the fairytale at Jumilhac-le-Grand

Hiring a car is a must for a holiday in rural France – if you want to see any of it beyond your lodgings that is. You can’t expect bustling centres in this neck of the woods, but that’s part of the escapist charm. Just ten minutes away from Sarrazac is Jumilhac-le-Grand, where you’ll find a fairytale Château.

Château de Jumilhac

You can see it poking out of the high trees as you drive into the village; it does make you go ahhh. It forms part of the Richard the Lionheart Route with other nearby castles (Nexon, Coussac-Bonneval and Chalus) if you fancy an historical roadtrip. We learned that it dates back to the 12th century but we decided not to take a look inside because you couldn’t take photographs. Now what use is that for us blogging types!

The village is pretty quiet with around 1200 inhabitants. We saw about four people the whole time we were there, including the ice cream lady who sat on her front porch selling Twisters and Cornettos. Bless her, she had a sandwich-board advertising around 30 different ice lollies and ice creams, but her shop appeared to be just a single freezer in her front room.

Happily giving the locals business

Jumilhac is well worth a stop if you’re driving along the historic route or if you’re staying nearby. As well as the Château, there’s a pretty square with a fountain and some pleasant walks by the river.

Can you hear anything?

Nope, me neither. A holiday in the Dordogne is so peaceful, even just a few days there as we spent, will have you coming back home with a full tank of happiness in your heart and you’ll have topped up your energy levels. You can sometimes go a whole day without hearing a single car drive past. It’s just you, the sunshine, the birds and a refreshing glass of wine. I bet you’re wondering what the reference to donkeys in the headline is about at this point. Well, to make my point about the quiet, you won’t even hear the neighbours mowing the lawn. Apparently new-fangled technology has no place here: the donkeys you see in people’s gardens are hired to cut the grass! Honestly, that’s what our hosts told me…

Want to escape to the Dordogne?

I flew to Limoges, which is the nearest airport to where we were staying and to the places we visited. But flights from the UK are available to Bordeaux, Angoulême, Poitiers, La Rochelle and Bergerac if you fancy seeing other parts of the region. Take a look at the following airlines, which fly to some or all of the Dordogne’s airports:-

Flybe            http://www.flybe.com

RyanAir         http://www.ryanair.com

British Airways         http://www.ba.com

If your French is a bit rusty I’d recommend getting a French phrasebook before you go. I haven’t spoken the language since I was 15 in my GCSE exam so I knew I’d need to refresh myself of a few words and phrases. You’re spoken to in French there and they won’t resort to English unless they really have to. Plus it’s nice to show a bit of willing I think; they only cost a few quid and are pocket sized. I like Lonely Planet phrasebooks, but there are loads to choose from such as the Collins French phrasebook or if you’ve got an iPod, you can just download a phrasebook and learn on the go.

If you want to hire a car, find out the kind of places you can stay in or you just want more general tourist info, I found this site really useful:- http://www.northofthedordogne.com/

A trip to the Dordogne is the perfect adventure abroad if you’ve only got a few days of leave to spare. There’s no need to allow for jet lag, yet it feels a million miles away and will have you feeling refreshed in no time.

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