by Nancy Bestor
I am not a big shopper. The idea of a typical shopping trip, browsing from store to store and buying items from various establishments, sounds to me like a day in purgatory. More than anything I like my shopping easy and convenient. If I can’t find it quickly and close to home or work, I’ll buy it online.
Thus on a recent trip to southern France I was a bit surprised to find myself delighted to arise each morning and excitedly ask my family, “Where’s today’s market?”
We rented a house in Marnac, a tiny town about 20 kilometers from Sarlat in the Dordogne. Though there was a traditional super market just a few minutes away, our rental agency kindly provided a list of open-air markets in nearby villages to choose from, and we gladly took advantage of this opportunity.
Each morning, we took our empty grocery bag and drove to a nearby village to fill it up. All the open-air markets we visited offered crafts, knick-knacks, and even some touristy doodads, but we normally passed these offerings by and headed straight to the food. A mouth- watering array of produce and vegetables, breads, wines, desserts, pastries, meats, cheeses, and much, much more were all available. Beautiful fresh flowers and decorative plants were also in abundance.
Every day we chose something new. One day we bought fresh sausage for our dinner, from a butcher who looked like he had ground and cased it that very morning, a tasty bottle of local wine and fresh baked tarts. Another day we filled our shopping bag with vegetables and salad makings. Next it was succulent duck confit, prepared and canned by the family of the man working the booth, who also recommended his favorite cuts to us. We always bought fresh baguettes, and delicious local cheeses. Many of the markets also offered hot prepared foods, and we sampled delicacies like paella, potatoes with local mushrooms, and wonderfully roasted chickens all right off the grill.
The prices were fair, not inflated for tourists. And in fact, we saw far more local villagers doing their shopping and meeting with friends then we did tourists. I was perfectly happy to shop like the French and buy just a day’s worth of food, so we could visit a new village and market the next day. Our girls enjoyed it too—how could a person of any age resist buying delicious raspberries and strawberries, tarts, warm baguettes and more? As you might imagine, many of these delicacies were far too good to make it back to the car. It was a great way to experience the real France, not to mention the cost savings we realized for cooking our own meals instead of eating out. Every item we bought at the open markets was delicious. I am convinced that when it comes to French cheese and wine, no matter the price level, it is always better than what we have here at home. We never paid more than $12 US for a bottle of wine, and all were outstanding, and the cheese…..how can I begin to describe the mouth watering cheeses we ate each day? It didn’t matter what kind we bought, each cheese was the most succulent, delicious cheese I had ever tasted.
To best experience the markets, and to have a kitchen, we chose to rent a house and make it our home base for exploring the Dordogne region. We rented through At Home in France (www.athomeinfrance.com), an agency based in Ashland, Oregon that has specialized in vacation properties in France for more than 12 years. Owners Allyn Kaufmann and Bruce Dicoskey have personally visited each of the 350 homes or apartments in their portfolio and offered candid advice about each home we considered. We ended up in a nearly brand new and very well appointed cottage that has been converted from an old farmhouse. It featured a small but fully equipped kitchen, two bedrooms, two baths and a swimming pool. Our mid- season rental rate was $1255 for the week and the location was excellent. We were right in the heart of the Dordogne and surrounded by ancient castles, magnificent chateaus and picturesque rolling French farmland.
A car was definitely a necessity and we rented through Gemütlichkeit auto rentals (www.gemut. com), a Bestor-family owned business, and enjoyed driving our peppy diesel-powered Fiat through the French countryside.
Of the many castles we explored the family favorite was Chateau de Beynac in the village of Beynac et Cazenac. Just 13 kilometers from our house, this 800-year-old castle seemed to hang over the Dordogne River and offered self-guided tours of its restored rooms. Many of the rooms, including the spiral stone staircase leading to the dungeon, were lit only by oil lanterns, which made the experience a bit eerie and much more realistic and enjoyable. I half expected to see a man on the torture rack.
Another favorite site was the Gouffre de Padirac (Padirac Caves) near Rocamadour. The chasm, 338 feet below ground level was discovered in 1892. Its highlight is the underground river, on which we took a 500-meter long flat- bottomed boat ride. Our guide led us on an enchanting journey through the clear waters of the river, after which we took a short subterranean hike and admired giant stalactites, stalagmites (up to 250 feet high) and more underground lakes, pools and waterfalls.
As just about everything revolves around the Dordogne itself, a river trip is a must. We chose a canoe as our mode of transportation. Many villages, chateaus, and prehistoric cave dwellings are built high into the cliffs above the Dordogne River, and often the most spectacular views are from the river itself. There are guided boat tours, but we chose to rent a canoe for a quiet and leisurely journey down the river on our own with a stop for a picnic lunch. It seemed that every bend opened up another glorious view and we got a nice workout to boot.
We were delighted to find that contrary to popular stereotypes, the locals were eager to help us. They were happy to put up with our virtually non-existent French and thankful for our business. We were quite inspired and Bob and I spoke several times of retiring in the Dordogne region. The chateaus, the baguettes, the scenery, the tarts, the markets, and the cheeses all weigh heavily in France’s favor. My biggest concern is how to stay relatively thin with so much great food at my fingertips.
—Nancy Bestor is a co-owner of Travel Essentials. She is currently at work developing an exercise routine that would encompass visiting a different French village market each day, and eating just a little bit from each of the vendors, while at the same time burning thousands of calories. She’s sure her routine will make her very rich.