A+ A A-

TAKEAWAYS FROM SOUTHWEST FRANCE

                                     

The Vezere River from Site de la Madeleine

Visitors to the serene valley of the Vezere River in southwest France come prepared to discover exciting links to human prehistory A single road along the river connects carefully preserved sites where homo sapiens found shelter and food some 20,000 years ago.  At Site de la Madeleine (no relation, the name refers to time period) I could envision standing guard on a ledge above the river scanning for boats from shelters upstream. On a tour through the newest cave replica of Lascaux, we all gazed with childlike wonder at herds of enormous animals painted on the walls of its narrow passageways.
Replica of cave paintings at Lascaux IV
Our English guide at the Museum of Prehistory in nearby Les Eyzies-la-Tayac showed us examples of early man's technical prowess as hunter and artist. Museum displays of recovered objects are interspersed with dioramas and videos that demonstrate how skillfully early man made weapons and turned softer pieces of animal hide and shells into elaborate headdresses. (A beautiful example is in the collection of Chicago's Field Museum.)  
This phantom world of distant past evaporated as we drove through in the rolling Dordogne countryside.  Gaggles of ducks and geese have replaced the thundering herds of bison and antelope.  Confit of duck and foie gras appear on every menu.  Prehistoric residents would be amazed to see the handsome chateaux and fortified villages built along the Vezere since the 12th century century as global warming after the ice age allowed plants and woodlands to flourish.
                        
View of the town of Montignac on the Vezere River and Confit de Canard
Our quest for an Saturday market was easily filled in nearby Sarlat-le-Caneda, a town first settled in Gallo-Roman times.  The town center swells in the morning with tourists and locals eager for locally grown foods and regional specialties. At stop for coffee in Place de la Liberte, the heart of the market, allowed us to time travel again as we watched shoppers and vendors play out their time-honored roles against the backdrop of the 12th century Cathedral of Saint Sacerdos. That evening in Montignac, we dined on market ‘finds’ in potluck fashion: cheeses from Rocamadour and the Auvergne; bread baked in a wood-fired oven; thinly sliced smoked duck breast; fresh walnut cake and an assortment of locally-grown strawberries.  All of it washed down with local wine from Cahors.
A trip to southwest France would be incomplete without a visit to the winemaking area of Bordeaux.  The most surprising takeaway for me, having let almost two decades elapse since my last visit, was the dramatic change in winemaking practices underway.  Bordeaux wines are traditionally made predominantly with cabernet sauvignon grapes that are structured to mature over a period of 10 to 20 years.  We learned as we toured properties in Saint Emilion that 85% of the wine purchased today is drunk within 48 hours.  This news whetted my appetite (sorry) to learn more about 21st century winemaking in Bordeaux on future visits.
Bar in a Bordeaux Bistro on a Saturday evening
Our group of travelers spent the final afternoon in Bordeaux's 'golden triangle' of luxury shops for gifts to take home. Another takeaway was the new energy I sensed in this ancient port city.  Bordeaux now has an extensive tram system that accelerates travel through the city center, out into the surrounding winegrowing areas and along the wharf whose once abandoned warehouses are now filled with small shops and dining spots.  An ambitious wine museum, Cite du Vin, opened in 2016 and across the street a barn-like food mall called Les Halles de Bacalan awaits anyone interested in casual dining elbow-to-elbow with les bordelais.  Where else can you find a food stand that specializes in an assorted flavors of chocolate mousse?
 
Les Halles de Bacalan on Sunday Afternoon