August is the peak vacation month in France. With five weeks of vacation per year mandated by labor law, the French often take two to three weeks off in August for their biggest getaway of the year. In the spirit of the French joie de vivre, my husband and I decided to spend August vacation in the Mid- and Southwest of France. The landscapes was different from that in the central and south of France, and I got to see some of the most scenic driveways in my experience.
France is blessed with many different types of landscape, climate and local culture. A few hours of driving took us from grandiose, pine covered mountains only fit for skiing to vast valley where agriculture flourishes. Within half an hour, I passed a 15th century viaduc, descended into a vast sunflower fields before reaching a ski station at altitude 1,500m. The temperature changed with the turn of the wheel and so was the landscape. We started from the Rhone-Alps region, near Lyon, where the valley is vast and industrialized, the mountains low and round like the trees that dominate them, and the fields covered by either wheat or cows. As we headed further south-west, the fields were filled with plants – lentil, sunflower, cherry. The trees in the Mid-west are either tall and pointy or low and bushy. The further West we went, the more tropical trees like palms and bananas appeared.
The houses in the Southwest carry more Roman influences, although less enunciated like those in the South. While made of stone and brick, houses in the South and Southwest look less bulky than those in the Rhone-Alpes valley. Their windows are definitely not blue like in the Provence region, nor are they tall and yellow like in Lyon. In some areas such as Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, the roof tiles are made of flat moon-shaped grey stone resembling fish skin. The roof is high and steep on top with an elegant outward curve at the end. There are windows sticking out from the roof in the same fashion as the French baroque roofs in Paris. The overall aesthetics make one think of the North, somewhere in the French Brittany, Germany or Belgium, where the houses are designed to bear the thick, heavy winter snow. It is interesting to find such winter architecture in the South. In Caussade and nearby villages an hour south of Beaulieu, the tiles changed to red color and curvy shape; the roof tilts with a very flat angle, bearing influence of Roman-style housing. Surprisingly, there is a number of houses with exposed beams scattered around the Southwest area – a type of housing often found in the north.
This is a quick summary of my itinerary:
Day 1: Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne
Day 2-7: Caussade and Saint Antonin Noble Val
Day 8: Albi and Rodez
Day 9-10: Laguiole and Ardeche
The Michelin guide has great options for people like us who prefer to see local scenes along the road rather than just getting from point A to point B. As a result, our route of choice included a series of departmental highways. In France, the highways under the control of departments go by D-number. They are free, smaller than national highways whose name starts N, go through small towns and have lower speed limit compared to national highways. By coincidence, we encountered a number of towns whose names end with -ac, like Chadrac, Langeac, Aurillac, and Massiac. From the valley of the Loire department, we headed south-west, through the Haute-Loire, Cantal, Correze department and hit our first destination in a charming little town by the Dordogne river.
A one-hour drive the following day took us through the touristic town of Cahors and a string of cute villages until we hit Caussade, the city of hats, located in the Tarn-et-Garonne department, south of Dordogne. With a group of friends, we rented a vacation house – which is actually a converted estate – ten minutes away from downtown Caussade and spent a good, relaxing week there. The girls managed to put together a day-trip to Saint Antonin Noble Val, a small touristic town nearby. The town was a charming gem situated on an island hidden amongst steep mountains.
Once we left Caussade, my husband and I drove further south-east towards Albi and then Rodez – two elegant, well-preserved old towns each with a magnificent cathedral and a museum dedicated to renowned artist from there.
The trip concluded with a cozy evening in a family vacation home with a view of Ardeche. On the way to Ardeche, we made a detour up the mountain to Laguoile where I bought my first ever Laguoile knife – a testament for reliable quality artisanal crafts. Between Laguoile and Ardeche, we drove pass the panoramic point of Villefort looking down on the the massive dam, a 13th century bridge still standing proudly, and a lonesome chapel on top of mountain island. The house in Ardeche belongs to the parents of a friend. Situated on the hillside, the house has a terrace with amazing view and a big garden featuring seasonal treats of the Southwest – figs, grapes, spices. On the way back from Ardeche, we passed La Garde-Guerrin, which was voted one of the most beautiful villages in France by Le Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Stay tuned for more posts about the places we visited in the Southwest of France.
Photos by Gregoire Abrial