Travelling is one of life's great pleasures. We travel to have a break from our usual routine, to see new places, try new things, eat different foods and meet people and cultures that are different to those we know. Nick and I have now been making our way slowly around the world for 18 months. Some countries we visited have been completely different to what we expected, in some we didn't really know what to expect and then there are those with such a familiar culture you just cannot mistake it for anywhere else.
France is definitely one of those countries. The food, the people, the architecture, the landscape and the atmosphere all give it away. Landing in Toulouse we picked up a hire-car and 1.5 hours later we were in Aubiac, a tiny village in Lot - et - Garonne where we felt completely immersed into this wonderful new world. We were staying within a castle compound and as soon as we arrived we had a tour of the castle (although a chateau is a manor house, I much prefer the direct translation which is castle), saw the old wine presses and barrels and visited the 12th century church.
The following day we set off to see a real castle - Chateau de Bonaguil in Fumel. Dating back to 1271 the buildings were reconstructed in the late 15th century and turned into a proper Medieval fortress and that's how it stands today - with towers, drawbridges, cannon ports etc.
The French 'art de vivre' is just too good. We settled into a routine of enjoying lots of delicious food and local red wine amongst beautiful scenery and strong traditions. A typical day means lunch next to Henri IV's castle in Nerac and dinner in a humble restaurant feasting on a 'simple' 5 course meal including goats cheese, foie gras, duck and creamy desserts.
Our next stop was Dordogne which sums up the attractions of this corner of rural France perfectly with its picturesque villages, rolling hills and plenty of bistros serving tasty foods. We were there in late July and it's hard to imagine a more beautiful time of year. It's lush and green with an abundance of flowers and to top it all fields with millions of happy-looking sunflowers as far as the eye can see. We took so many photos, each time hoping to truly capture the colour and scale.
We stayed in Saint Aulaye, this year's location of an annual festival called La Felibree du Pays. Although we missed the actual event they had left behind 45km of flower garlands for everybody to enjoy! Most towns around here host a weekly market and on the Monday morning we went to Chalais to buy fruit and cheese. Wandering amongst the stalls with your delicacies in a straw basket you can easily kid yourself that you are one of the locals.
Another day we drove to nearby Saint Emilion to get some wine for dinner, an altogether more interesting experience than a visit to your local bottle shop! Saint Emilion was probably the busiest of all the places we visited with tourists admiring the beautiful town and the surrounding vineyards. And like us, all with the ulterior motive of sampling some wine and learning a bit about it.
Staying on the wine trail we then went to Medoc, northwest of Bordeaux, home to some of the region's most celebrated vineyards with names that even I recognise: Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Lafite Rothschild. We stayed in Saint Seurine de Cadourne where the tourist office sells wine in addition to being very helpful with information on visiting the producers. We particularly enjoyed the network of walking trails linking many of the vineyards meaning you can enjoy the wines and also the feeling of being immersed in this green landscape.
Distances are small - it's only 300km from Toulouse to Medoc so most of the tricky navigating is from the bakery to the weekly market via the sunflower field or trying to take the long route to catch as many picturesque views as possible. Whatever you do France casts a spell on you. We will definitely be back for more one day...