Has long-haul travel lost its lustre? Has the sheer nastiness of airports, cramped cabins, intrusive and time-consuming security, crowds and bad food dispelled the appeal of far-flung places many time zones away?
Unless you’re flying posh class (or lying-down class as we call it), three hours max in the metal tube is about the limits of tolerance. And so with a skip in my step I’ve rediscovered some old favourites, foreign places closer to home that, in a misguided urge to be cool, I’d completely forgotten about.
Yes, it became a cliché but the smug middle classes have moved on, keener on the Maldives or adventures with serious bragging rights
And what’s the place that came sliding back to mind? The Dordogne. Don’t groan. Yes, it became a cliché but the smug middle classes have moved on, keener on the Maldives or adventures with serious bragging rights. Travellers ahead of the curve and alert to Instagram opportunities prefer the secret and unfamiliar. But I have rediscovered the Dordogne, and love it.
So what makes the Dordogne area so appealing? It’s not just sumptuous countryside with the broad river winding lazily through it, fabulous food and absurdly picturesque villages. The hotels, many family owned, are a class apart with a matchless patina of age and charm and personality. Who needs the suffocating luxury that blights most new builds? Even the most avant-garde Civilian readers must occasionally long for the green shade of ancient trees and an authentic culture that exists beyond tourism. This is la France profonde in all its glory.
Fly to Bergerac from Stansted on Ryanair: not the nightmare it’s cracked up to be, I’ve had worse times on major carriers. You need a car to get the most out of the area.
My first stop is Le Vieux Logis in Tremolat, a lovely rambling-property that dates back to an ancient priory and farm. In 1836 the old manor house, outbuildings and tobacco-drying sheds were converted into a family home with extensive grounds. In the garden there’s a lime tree planted by the men working on the site, a thank you to the owners for the celebratory banquet they were given on completion. The feast lasted two days.
Several generations later, in 1952, the owners turned their home, into a hotel to cater for increasing numbers of visitors to the Périgord. Their dining room became a gastronomic restaurant and a destination for travellers on the main road between Paris and Nice.
In 1979 their son Bernard Giraudel took over and he is still very much around today, cheerfully keeping an eye on things and treating the young enthusiastic team like his own family. There are now 23 bedrooms, two restaurants and a meeting room – though anything less business-ey is hard to imagine.
The interiors are cosy and welcoming with old leather and rich textiles, wood panelling, and comfortable furniture long out of fashion but fitting perfectly here. Romantic gardens embrace the whole property with lawns, huge shady trees and perfumed flower-beds, clipped hedges and topiary, and a chattering stream running through, drawing them all into a enchanting, rustic whole. There’s also a large swimming pool with loungers for serious sun worship.
My room is comfortable without being ostentatious and feels like a private house with a very thoughtful owner. My view takes me straight into the gardens with the sound of birdsong and the soft green shade. Any attempt at diet or self-control is binned with the arrival of the breakfast tray with French pastries oozing butter – so delicious it must be good for me.
I envy the writer Henry Miller who came for a night and ended up staying a month. If only.
Le Vieux Logis remains a serious gastronomic destination and not just for hotel residents. There’s a smart, not too formal dining room within the hotel as well as a snug bar and smoking room. Meals are often served in the garden with straw hats and warm shawls available depending on the weather.
The chef, Vincent Arnould, is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France with the distinctive tricoleur on his chef’s whites. He holds a Michelin star and an enthusiastic rating from the Gault Millau guide for dishes such as warm lobster salad, foie gras with smoked sturgeon and mushrooms, roast pigeon breast with girolles. Throughout the year, the owner M. Giraudel holds special dinners to celebrate the game season, local escargots, the nut harvest or “celebrations du Moussur” – the local dialect name for pigs.
Outside the hotel, I’m genuinely captivated by the tiny historic village of Tremolat with its Romanesque 12th century church and 15th century tower. There’s a busy farmers’ market in the square and the Bistrot de la Place serving gutsy regional food with no frills.
I long for proper walks, not lazy strolls. For breath taking views across the countryside, you can hike along the cliffs bordering the river which forms two huge meanders, the cingle de Tremolat, echoed by the nearby cingle de Limeuil. Amazing light whether it’s reflections at noon or early morning mists.
I buy an unsuitable summer dress and yet another straw shopping bag (both of which will go straight to the charity shop in London)
Exploring further, I take in the tall honey-coloured buildings and narrow streets and buildings of Sarlat, and the fierce fortress – and daunting steps – at Rocamadour on the sacred pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. There’s also Collonges la Rouge, made entirely of local red sandstone and often hailed as the prettiest village in the whole of France. I buy an unsuitable summer dress and yet another straw shopping bag (both of which will go straight to the charity shop in London). More sensible and permanent are authentic Couteaux de Notron, traditional table knives with box-wood handles.
The next stage of my Dordogne odyssey is Château de la Treyne, about 6km from Souillac. If Le Vieux Logis was seductively homely, Château de la Treyne is pure fairyland. White and stately, it perches above the Dordogne commanding the surrounding countryside and the bridge over the river. No surprise that when built in 1342 it was a fortress and its history is studded with battles, aristocrats, feuds and Royal patronage. During WWll, antiquities from the Louvre were stored here for safe keeping.
No such alarms for today’s visitor, all is luxe, calme et volupté as Baudelaire’s poem L’Invitation au voyage precisely puts it. After 300 years in the same family, since 1982 Chateau de la Treyne has been a hotel owned and run by Philippe and Stéphanie Gombert. This is no ‘mom-and-pop’ operation: Philippe is a high-powered lawyer and academic who is also the President of Relais & Chateaux, the influential hospitality group. Stéphanie is the more consistent presence, a true chatelaine and subtle concierge, overseeing all with great warmth, good humour and taste. “Ninety percent of our guests,” she says, “want a personal relationship with the hotelier.”
I morph into a princess amidst the glorious richly decorated rooms with their thick stone walls and mysterious passages. Some rooms and suites are ultra glamorous while others are rustic with exposed beams and ancient tiled floors. All have bags of character. I’m in Louis Xlll with a four-poster bed, parquet floors, antique furniture and a magnificent view over the river.
I explore the gardens, some laid out in the formal French style with roses and classical statuary. There’s a 350 year-old Cedar of Lebanon, 120 acres of wooden parkland, and a large heated outdoor infinity swimming pool to channel my inner starlet.
There’s a high, coffered ceiling and I long to be there at Christmas when German-born Stéphanie goes to town with decorations
Needless to say, there’s more delicious food whether on the terrace overlooking the lazy Dordogne or wearing best bib and tucker in the imposing restaurant. There are walls covered with rich fabric and tapestries, baronial chairs, oak shutters, marble floors and an open fireplace. There’s a high, coffered ceiling and I long to be there at Christmas when German-born Stéphanie goes to town with decorations.
A leisurely dinner includes blue lobster with spicy rémoulade, chopped walnuts and risotto with the kick of wasabi. Then duck breast with duck-filled ravioli, confit root vegetables, unctuous fruit sauce and baby leaves. There’s wonderful bread, a great cheese board, lavish desserts and a sommelier with a knack of suggesting unknown but ideally suitable wines. It’s reverential in the dining room but perfect.
Finally it’s time to return to the real world and the flight back to London from Bordeaux. You can postpone the culture shock and take in countryside never seen from a motorway with the local train to Bordeaux from Brive: slow travel at its most diverting. And definitely no jet lag. C
Le Vieux Logis Relais & Châteaux, 24510 Trémolat, France
vieux-logis.com; +33 5 53 22 80 06