Beautiful Pay Basque
Ainhoa is listed among the most beautiful villages in France, but this is also the heart of Basque country and as such, has a slightly more unique feel. In fact, this town used to be part of the Basque feudal province of Labourd and even now comprises the cross-border area of Xareta. Let’s not forget that in Ainhoa, Spain is only one kilometer to the south. Ainhoa and the surrounding countryside is a fantastic place to discover Basque culture. In Ainhoa particularly, we see Basque architectural influences around town. Even though many of the villages original structures burned during the Thirty-Years War, it was rebuilt with the same traditions in mind – large lintel stones over doorways (usually adorned with a saying) and strong aesthetically hatched vertical and horizontal wood timber that is painted red with detailing on the horizontal frames. A perfect white wash plaster on the rest of the building serves to highlight these forms even more. The town originated as a model town to serve pilgrims on the Camino de Compostela. For those with the stamina, hike two kilometers up the Col de la Trois Croix for Ainhoa’s most spectacular spot. Here, overlooking the town from 300 meters above is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-d’Aubépine. This is the spot where legend says Mary appeared to a young shepherd. A small chapel was constructed and three crosses mark the spot where traditional Basque graves, circular or officially called “discoid stelae” offer a beautiful vista over the surrounding lands. These elements, not to mention the architecture of Ainhoa itself, make this a great stop along your Tour de France.
Smoking in Bergerac
As if the region’s culinary vices weren’t enough, Bergerac, is the home of France’s small but notable tobacco growing industry. On the ride along the Dordogne River, riders are more likely to pass tobacco fields than vineyards, especially further upstream. The finale of this Tour de France Périgord expose, then, ends at the surprisingly interesting Musée du Tabac. Only steps from the river, the museum explains the history of the plant and industry as related to the region. Tobacco presents a unique story for it is one of the items that traversed the Atlantic from America east. Nevertheless, it is a product that fully infiltrated all aspects of society starting in the 17th century. The museum occupies the Maison Peyrarède, a 17th century castle. Inside its stone walls, the museum uses art and artifacts to tell the history and influence of tobacco in France. The tobacco industry in France is comprised of 2,076 growers. Just about the time the peloton passes in mid-July, the plant is in full bloom and nears harvest. Evidence of tobacco endows the valley, from the yellowing plants to drying sheds to cooperative purchasing center in Sarlat.
A Fairytale Setting
When you think of France, Beynac-et-Cazenac is one of those fairy-tale landscapes that comes to mind. Its riverside setting, tall natural fortified cliff, cobbled streets, and cozy population became the perfect setting the movie Chocolat. Even earlier, however, Beynac was a key strategic point along the Dordogne River. From its mouth near Bordeaux all the way to its source in the Massif Central 483 kilometers upstream, this was a major waterway. The cliff of Beynac, then, was the ideal place to establish a feudal castle. There are no fewer than four other castle extant in the immediate area, not to mention at least seven along this stage of the Tour. The town itself crawls its way up the cliff face to the door of the chateau more than 65 meters up. It really is a gorgeous town. The medieval Chateau de Beynac was built in the 12th century to take advantage of this promontory. Even so, the architects of Beynac took no chances. This fortress featured crenellated walls, double moats, and double barbicans, or turreted gateways. Still, the English found their way here by marriage in the mid-12th century. Richard the Lion Heart seized the castle in 1197 until his death in 1199. Several more armies captured the castle until the Lords of Beynac were able to create their own power. It is one of the finest surviving examples of medieval construction in France today and is a splendor to tour. The inclusion of interior period pieces makes this an excellent place to discover castle life in the middle ages.
Good Water in Eaux-Bonnes
So many towns and villages in the Pyrenees have a tie to thermal springs, but the village of Eaux-Bonnes mixes a rich past with a still-present resort. Like more familiar resorts such as Bagneres-du-Luchon, Eaux-Bonne was purpose-built as a thermal resort in the 19th century. Even the Roman, who made thermal baths a thing, enjoyed the waters here, but never laid any permanent foundations. The springs were used intermittently over the next millenia until a new spa building was built. This was a modest building (now the town hall) nestled in the narrow valley on the Valentin River. Once word got out, however, this village, Graham Robb describes as “the Paris street wedged into a Pyrenean gorge” swelled by over 2,000% to a population of 6,400 “invalids” seeking its healing waters. With such explosion came commercial success, as indicated by the impressive casino atop a commanding hill at the edge of town. All of a sudden, Eaux-Bonnes became a tourism magnet. That was until World War II, in which such resorts were out of favor with the occupying (and no longer a priority for the occupied) forces. The thermal baths could not make a recovery following the war’s end. Today, much of Eaux-Bonnes looks like a ghost town, although the well-known company Valvitol operates a newer and fancier thermal center dedicated to the benefits of these springs to rheumatism and respiratory tract treatments. This is done with all the modern technology while keeping the traditions of Eaux-Bonnes’ heritage.
One Hundred Years in Eymet
Eymet is possibly the smallest Tour host city that we’ve seen in recent years. Its 2,645 residents sit at the far southern reaches of the Perigord. Interestingly, this is about the same number of inhabitants present in 1793. Eymet may not be a top destination, but it lets us dive into this part of France’s unique English heritage. This begins with the Hundred Years’ War and the English ruling of Aquitaine. It’s a fascinating era of history and one that I am more familiar with names like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Why Eymet? It’s all a matter of geography. The Dropt River, a tributary of the mighty Garonne, flows through town and several others are nearby. It’s location at the edge of the Perigord defined it as a frontier town, especially once the British started knocking. A bastide, or centrally founded and developed communal town with some sort of defenses, was created by the French in 1270. On this frontier, a new town and organized population was the next best thing to a castle or fortress. Despite the bastide, the English occupied the town early in the war and it was not re-taken by the French for almost a century. Over the course of several new English generations, the inhabitants identified themselves as English. This continued into the French period and became strikingly visible as towns chose Protestantism over Catholicism centuries later. Even into the 19th century, a majority of the population was Protestant in this predominantly Catholic country. It’s amazing how the cultural impact and identity of a people can be influenced by changing borders. The area continues to be a popular retirement spot for English expats. In 2011, a British reality TV show called the region Little England as it followed the lives of several expats.
You wouldn’t think of it, but this capital of the Béarn, is also the gateway to the little known Jurançon AOC wine region. I fact, right across the Gave de Pau, is the small town that lends its name to the AOC. Beyond are the vineyards and the some sixty Domaines that produce this dry and sweet white wine, respectively. Such as would be expected in the foothills of the Pyrenees. With the mountains looming nearby, the weather is crisper and the wine conducive to Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Courbu grapes that develop into refreshing pineapple and mango characteristics. The author Colette even had a love affair with the wine, which producers picked-up on and espoused this as the seducer of wines. See for yourself.
France’s National Shrine to Cyclists
France is a country known its chateau in every town, cheese for each day, and wine for every occasion. It should come as no surprise, then, that it also has a church for every cause. In this cycling crazy land, this sport is no different. A regular sttop for cycling enthusiasts and the Tour is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Cyclists in Labastide-d’Armagnac. To be fair, this chapel was repurposed as a cycling shrine. It originally was built in the 11th century as the Chapel of Géou. Nearly a millennium later, the chapel was in disrepair and long forgotten. That is until a local abbot was inspired to repurpose the derelict church as a shrine to cycling, literally. A dream became reality when Pope John XXIII proclaimed this a national shrine in 1958. Ten years before, Pope Pius XII acknowledged the Virgin Mary as the patron saint of cyclists at Lake Como’s scenic Madonna del Ghisallo. Abbot Massie, an experienced cyclist himself, was directly inspired by this Italian precedent. And so Notre-Dame-des-Cyclists was born. Today it also serves as a cycling museum and is a must stop for any avid cyclist. Its highlight is the cyclist-themes stained glass windows. Even the Tour de France started here in 1989. The chapel goes to show that wonders exist in every nook and cranny of this diverse nation.
The Caves at Lascaux
We’ve discovered quite a few caves on the Tour route, but Lascaux is the cave of caves. This is the original. It is legendary. This is the kind of place that makes the imagination run wild with adventure. The cave at Lascaux sits on a wooded limestone hill overlooking the Vézère River, just south of the village of Montignac. Only 17 kilometers down river, around the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil, is Europe’s largest concentration of decorated caves and habitation sites with 37. In fact, the Vézère Valley contains a total of 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves, which combined comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So why is Lascaux so special? The answer is its size, discovery, and the role it played in understanding human history and art. Yes, art. You see, Lascaux features some 100 animal figures. These not only add clarity to an anthropological understanding of prehistoric life, but are rich in colors and details. The result is a lifelike expression of the artist’s world and a true window into this alien world. The caves were “re-discovered” in September 1940 by an 18-year old Frenchman and his dog. He noticed a hole in the ground 20 centimeters (7 inches) in diameter and by throwing rocks in the hole, discovered a larger cavity below. Several days later, he returned with friends to pry open the crevice and explore the cave for the first time. By December of 1940, the cave was designated a historic monument and opened to the public in 1948. Until its closure in 1963, one million people visited the cave. The results were tangible as the paintings became faded. It became a WHS in 1979. To satisfy a curious public, a replica of the cave’s famed Great Hall of the Bulls and Painted Gallery opened in 1983 for everyone to marvel at. Definitely worth the visit, this place will make you wonder, “What’s below my feet?”
Hitting the Links in Pau
With a population of nearly 100,000 and the gateway to the Pyrenees, Pau has a lot to offer. Perhaps not so well know, however, is its place in golf history. Exactly one kilometer from downtown and the famed Chateau de Pau, birthplace of Henry IV, is the Pau Golf Club. The Club was founded in 1856 but earlier in the century, two Scottish soldiers stationed in Pau during the Napoleonic Wars were homesick for their beloved sport. Just outside the city, they found an excellent plot to hone their skills. Later, they and other British expats settled in Pau and the Club was formalized on the same plot of land, with the Pyrenees in the background and the Gave de Pau in the fore. Surely, it is a course that takes advantage of Pau’s natural, not to mention historical, beauty. At this early date, the Club became the oldest course in continental Europe. Today, the greens fee will set a golfer back a mere 66 euros – not bad in order to experience a stroke of history.
Market Day in Périgueux
Périgueux lies at a crossroads of old France. This is the center of Périgord, and part of the region famously known as Aquitaine. In the middle ages, this was a hotbed of diversity. The result was a cornucopia of cuisine. With Bordeaux only a stone’s throw and Bergerac’s vineyards next door, Périgueux is noted for its use of duck, goose, and truffles. A market is one of the bucket list items for any traveler to France. With such tantalizing local produce, Périgueux’s Wednesday and Saturday markets are a clear winner. From the city’s center, the market sprawls out from the Place de la Clautre into adjacent streets, alleys, and plazas. It’s a serpent meandering its way and discovering Périgueux one stall at a time. Under the shadow of the imposing Cathedrale Saint-Front, the Place de la Clautre place was once used for public executions. Today, heads roll over small tastes of cheese or meats. The aromas of spices and herb fill the air. An array of crayon colors dot the scene. The diversity of the region lie before your eyes in a multitude of metaphors. Even for the transient traveler, the Périgueux market is an experience to behold and a wonderful supplier of picnic goods I might add.