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A Comment on European Roads

Sunday, April 5, 2004


Dear Families and Friends,


Our destination was still 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. Our European travels have told us that such a distance is at best a very long day so we planned for two this time. We also know that planning exactly how the days will go is problematic because distance-made-good in an hour can be anything from 150 km (almost 100 miles) on a reasonably empty German autobahn down to 50 km along the small roads that link the villages we love to visit.

On Sunday, we started with a bit of the autobahn. As usual, it was a bit crowded but we held our 160 kph (100 mph) cruising speed and stayed in the slow lane when we could. We didn’t want to be overrun by the big BMWs and Mercedes!

Just before Switzerland, we turned west into France. The highway became a toll road – but an almost empty one. It was great highway driving, even if we had to slow down a bit to stay close to the 130kph limit. We had heard reports of a recent crack down on speeding drivers, particularly those with German license plates, but the Gendarmarie wasn’t active on this Palm Sunday.

Without question, France toll roads have had the best road stops in our European travels and this trip was no exception. We stopped at the A71 toll road’s “Aire des Volcans d’Auvergne”, a huge facility, with a zillion fuel pumps, a small shopping center, restaurants, a hotel, and a tourist information center. Our lunch may not have been gourmet, but plain French cooking still wins the road food contest.

At the tourist center, we learned about the local attractions and regretted that we had such a short time. We could never see all villages, chateaux, and museums, not to mention all the ancient volcanoes and cave paintings of the area. So, on the first days of our French Spring Break, we vowed to come back again.

Sunday afternoon, we left the toll road in search of at least one castle to visit and a place to stay. Maybe we imagined these would be the same place? We were in the valley of the Besbre River and our map showed several castles or chateaux. The first sign we saw was to Chateau Thoury and we turned onto a side road through green fields filled with white Charolais cows, just waiting to start the cheese production this area is famous for.

Thoury turned out to be a small fortress-chateau, dating from the 12th Century. We parked in the nearly empty lot and walked over the dry-moat bridge into a small courtyard. We found an unattended entrance desk and wondered if we were supposed to be here at all. Just then, an elderly monsieur called from one of the ramparts to say he would be down in a few minutes – at least that’s what we think he said.

And he did come down and ask if we wanted the tour. “Oui” we said in our best (and almost-only) French. He apologized for having to use French but, after all, the English had never captured THIS castle. This land had been one of the battlefields of the 100-Years War between France and England and castles like this had been the fortifications that defined the battle lines. Thoury had stayed in French hands but the neighboring castle, Chateau Beauvoir, was one of many that had gone back and forth.

Over the centuries, Thoury was transferred from royalty to nobility and eventually to our guide’s family. It had served as a hunting lodge and part was still decorated with the hunt clothes that his grandparents had worn a hundred years ago. Another tower room had his own souvenirs from a long-past African hunting safari. These personal family touches made this castle tour special.

After Thoury, we needed to find a hotel room – easier said than done. We passed one or two hotels that were still closed for the winter. We even dove in to look at a couple Chambre d’Hotels (~ bed and breakfast) but we were too early in the tourist season for these as well. Finally, in the village of Lapalisse, we saw the Hotel Restaurant du Bourbonnais and stopped to check. It was open, inexpensive, and good-enough. However, while the room was nothing to write home about, the evening meal was great.

In France, it seems that a good meal is possible, no matter how small or simple the town or village. Marianne and I are both on diets but somewhere along the way, we resigned ourselves to a vacation from our strict eating regime. We were heading into the part of France with most-traditional cooking, filled with fats (goose, duck, “other”), breads, pastries, desserts, wines, and liquors. Damage control is the best we can hope for!

Our approach to the almost-thousand-year-old entrance to Thoury Chateau (Castle)
Our Thoury guide was the highlight. He was describing a family hunting lodge, with real affection for the family history it held.
Our catch-as-catch-can hotel - small, plain, a bit rough - but serving good country food. Polished country hotels may be easier to find in German-speaking countries, but no where beats France for reliable dining.



Monday, April 5, Drive and Arrive


Our Monday drive was mostly uneventful. We had both big toll roads (mostly empty) and regular country highways. Our driver-for-the-day managed to get the adrenalin going when we discovered we had an almost-empty gas tank and no gas stations for miles. I’m not sure there is anywhere in Germany that is this unsettled and “un-stationed”.

Around noon, we stopped to stretch, take pictures, and eat in the small village of Donzenac, just North of Brive. The walk around the town was fine, with a real medieval sense to the narrow passages and stone houses but in 10 or 15 minutes of walking throughout the town, we saw but one or two people. We spotted a restaurant or two but they were closed, as were the few shops along the main street. Did everyone leave after the last English invasion?

Finally, Marianne found an open bakery and asked for a lunch recommendation. The baker pointed up the street and promised a place, “just around the corner” (we think that’s what he said anyway). True to our French experience, we opened the door of the plain-looking “Bar Restaurant” and found the whole town inside, eating elegant two-star lunches. We said our “Bon Jours” and settled in. Another bad diet day.

Back on the road, we took our final toll road and turned off at Souillac, in the heart of the Dordogne Valley. We drove west along the Dordogne River and knew this was going to be a magical place. Rough stone houses either crowded the road or hung from the cliffs above right side. Occasionally, we would see a castle or chateau guarding its village and river section.

Sarlat is the biggest town in the area and it sits some distance north from the river, past farms and orchards advertising goose, duck, and walnut specialties. We resolved to “go local” once we had settled in. Our tour book had warned us that the drive into town was not easy and it was right. Off-season offered fewer cars but more road construction. I cannot imagine the summer crush – or, rather, I do not WANT to join it!

While we didn’t know exactly where our hotel was, we had few choices of where to drive so we just kept our eyes peeled. Just as we left the old part of Sarlat, we spotted the Hotel Madeline just in front of us. We double-parked, unloaded and got directions to the parking lot a couple blocks away. At well over 100-years old, the Madelaine is still a relatively new Sarlat building and car parks were not originally planned.

So, we had arrived and were ready to start exploring – but that’s another story.

John and Marianne


Empty street in Donzenac. Where WAS everybody??
In church, the only forms were ancient carvings and paintings.
Finally, we were directed to this rather plain-fronted Bar & Restaurant
Inside, the atmosphere was pure France. Elegant dinning and the food was as good as could be imagined.



French "Autoroutes":http://www.saprr.fr/index_v_ang.asp


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