How did I fall in love with France? It began with a captivating travel article about the village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie and a friend’s impassioned description of her recent trip to the village of La Roque-Gageac. In May of 1994 with no French-language speaking skills, my husband and I flew to Orly airport, rented a car and drove south to the Dordogne Valley.
It was lunch time when we pulled up to what looked like a restaurant in a sun-lit golden stone building overlooking the Dordogne River in La Roque-Gageac. Up a flight of stairs, we were seated in the center of a picturesque dining room at an elegantly set table. The only word I could decipher on the menu was thon – tuna. We selected the three-course prix fixe menu and were not disappointed with what we were served. After a long lunch and some wine, we realized there was a hotel above the restaurant and haltingly inquired if a room was available. Our room was located in the front with three windows overlooking the river. The French franc price for the room, at the time, was the equivalent of about $35.
The next morning we pulled ourselves away from the view to drive on and explore more of the area. We “oohed and aahed” at scenery that called out to us to stop and admire. By late afternoon we had made a 50-kilometer loop and decided to return to Hôtel la Gardette for another night in our room with the view. The following morning Saint-Cirq Lapopie was beckoning us, and the Lot Valley wasn’t far.
Approaching St-Cirq Lapopie we wondered if we had made a mistake in judging the distance. The drive up the steep and winding hillside was slow and torturous. As we rounded a final curve our jaws dropped open at the sight in front of us. We pulled the car over to marvel at the drama of the Lot River cutting a swath through the verdant valley below with St-Cirq Lapopie perched high above on the cliff with the church steeple and chateau ruin creating a memorable silhouette. We eagerly drove onward toward this mesmerizing sight, well worth the slow route to the top.
L’Auberge du Sombral in the middle of this pedestrian-only village had a room for us, and we were immediately immersed in the beauty of a place where artisans live and work in Quercy-style buildings with abundant gardens of flowers and vegetables. Restaurant Lou Bolat was our choice for lunch with its huge panoramic terrace. Our waitress from Sweden spoke excellent English, helped us with the menu, answered our many questions about the village and pretty much befriended us. We returned the next day to ask more questions, indulge in rich café au lait and savor the food prepared by her husband, the chef.
It was hard to leave St-Cirq Lapopie and our new friends, but after a few nights we wanted to continue to Provence. We arrived near Orange and were confronted with traffic, noise, grey sky and full hotels, even in the outlying villages. There were no blooming coquelicots (vibrant wild red poppies) and no rolling green hills; the terrain was dryer with more heat-tolerant foliage. We finally managed to find a chambre d’hôte in a Provençal mas situated at the edge of a sunflower field. The next morning as we left the mas, we looked at each other and vocalized what we were feeling, “Let’s leave and go back to St-Cirq Lapopie and La Roque Gageac.” We happily returned as quickly as we could, but our vacation days were coming to a close.
Over the years we have returned many times for special stays in house rentals and hotels and have sent many travelers to both La Roque Gageac and St-Cirq Lapopie, two extraordinary places of exquisite beauty. They continue to stand out as our favourites. I have also been diligently studying French, as it’s much more meaningful to be able to converse with the inhabitants of these small, charming villages. I continue learning and appreciating more about my adopted country as I grow to know her better and love her more.