Destinations / JOURNEY
Time to Explore
After leaving Angoulême we had a full itinerary for the next
six days. David had lived in Toulouse and traveled around
much of France, but I had never seen any part of France
aside from Paris and a brief weekend in Saint-Malo when I
was 14. I was excited to explore more of the country.
Our ambitious plan over the week would take us
through the Lot region, which is full of hilltop towns,
limestone cliffs and canyons, then across the Dordogne
to La Rochelle along the Atlantic coast. After La Rochelle
we planned a pit stop in Le Mans and then a couple of
nights in Rouen. Our last day would include a stop in
Reims to see a deserted but well-preserved old racetrack
on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
With a map in hand so we could find the smaller roads
and see the entirety of our circuit around France, we
headed to a small town called Calès, where I had booked a
In my guidebook I had read about Moulin de Latreille,
which was run by an English couple, Fi and Giles Stonor.
They had, over a period of years, restored a 12th-century
mill into an inviting and self-sustaining B&B. To get there
we drove through the small village of Calès down a nar-
row, one-way track into a limestone valley. Fi and Giles
were wonderful hosts. We arrived in the late afternoon
and they were ready with two glasses of rosé. We were one
of two couples staying there. Our room, under which the
mill run flowed as it had done for hundreds of years, was
peaceful and beautifully furnished.
There are many attractions in the area south of Calès.
Unfortunately, we only had one full day to sightsee, so we
headed straight for the spectacular town of Rocamadour.
This ancient pilgrimage site and village clings to a sheer
vertical cliff below 14th-century ramparts. We had
lunch at the top of the plateau that overlooked the valley with a storybook view that I will never forget. From
there we took the backroads to the hillside village of
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. Due to the number of tourists, parking is a short drive away, but the walk from there offers
views over the valley and the River Lot. The town is full of
narrow pedestrian walk ways and many of the old houses
are now occupied by various artists’ shops.
We set off early the next morning. We were sad to leave the
tranquility of Moulin de Latreille, but we had a long day of
driving through the Dordogne to reach the Atlantic coast
and La Rochelle.
I booked a room on the fly in La Rochelle as we stopped
for lunch in Bergerac. The guidebook described the hotel
as “charming, with individually decorated rooms from the
art deco period” and a “good value for the location.”
By the time we reached La Rochelle after driving for six
hours we were ready for anything. As we pulled into the
shaded, gravel courtyard of the hotel, I thought, “not bad for
booking on the fly.” But the hotel was like something out of
David Lynch’s T win Peaks. There was no log lady, but there
was a cat lady and not too many people beyond that. In fact,
aside from the owner and the cat lady, it felt like we were
the only other people staying in this large, run-down place.
But the guidebook was right, the location was perfect. Once
again, we found ourselves in the heart of the city center, and
right next to the waterfront. We spent the next day exploring
this old port city with its beautiful limestone facades and
medieval- and Renaissance-style buildings.
After too brief a stay in La Rochelle, we headed up to the
Normandy region and to Rouen. Before reaching Rouen,
we stopped for lunch in Le Mans — location of one of the
oldest endurance car races, held there annually since 1923.
After lunch, we drove to Rouen, where we would spend
the next two nights. Driving from southern to northern
France, one could see the change in the architecture. I
was lucky enough to be able to explore the old town while
David went in search of old cars. Despite damage caused
by World War II bombing raids, Rouen has a robust historic center. Here were well-preserved half-timber houses,
cobblestone streets and buildings so close together that
daylight didn’t reach the ground. There was the immense
Cathedral of Notre Dame, a shining example of Gothic
architecture. Not to be missed was the Gros Horloge, a
14th-century astronomical clock. Everything was within
easy walking distance, and there were plenty of sidewalk
cafes to sit in and watch the world go by. The town also
features a thriving open-air food and antiques market on
Saturdays and Sundays.
Our trip had started with a vintage car race, so it
seemed only fitting it should end at a racetrack. We headed
to Reims, not for Champagne, which is what the town is
known for, but instead to see a relic of a bygone era of rac-
ing: the Reims-Gueux race circuit. The circuit was first
used in 1925; many years later it was the site of the French
Grand Prix, and between 1950 and 1966 it held Formula
One races. What remains of the Reims-Gueux race circuit
are the grandstands, timing tower and roadside pits. A
group called Les Amis du Circuit-Gueux have helped
restore it. The buildings lie in the middle of open fields with
very few trees, and a long straight t wo-lane road bisects
the area. It felt deserted and yet peaceful. Very few cars
passed or even stopped while we were there. And while I
would probably have preferred sipping some of the best
Champagne the region had to offer, this reluctant race
enthusiast was awed by it and all that France had to offer. m
top left: The town
of Rocamadour; La
race circuit; Gros
Horloge, a 14th-century
Moulin de Latreille.