Tuesday, April 9, 2013

All About France, Off The Beaten Path In The Massif Central

I love traveling in France!  It’s no wonder that year after year, it’s ranked number one tourist destination in the world, and even after two decades of traveling the world, France remains to be one of my favorite places.  Of course, the only unfortunate side of its popularity is that everywhere you go, you’re bound to run into more tourists than locals.

After being bombarded by bus-load of tourists in Paris, the Loire Valley, and in Provence where English is more prevalent than French, all I wanted was to find a place where I can soak up the local culture and language without the sight of McDonald's.   And boy, did we find it!

Sheltering the country's largest area of protected landscape, Massif Central, along with Dordogne and Gascogne to the southwest, is located in the wildest, emptiest corners of France.  Here, you will rarely find tour buses, as most of the roads leading to the little towns and villages are as narrow and as windy as they come.

Many of France’s greatest rivers rise in Massif Central, creating a distinctive landscapes filled with causses, limestone plateaus, and stupendous gorges.  Thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes, these once volcanic uplands perched up on mountains and plateaus are geologically the oldest and the most isolated part of France.  Therefore, although it’s one of the largest regions in France, there are only a handful of towns.  There was very little exposure to people outside of the region until the opening of the A75 motorway, which not only made north-south travel easier, but also opened up the Massif Central itself to outsiders.  In some of the villages we’d visited, we felt as if time had stood still for a century, and we’d stepped back into the middle ages.

For my husband and I, it was really enjoyable being in a place that was unspoiled by tourists.  At times, we felt as if we were the only tourists, especially foreign ones at that, and although the locals didn’t have a lot of exposure to outsiders, we were pleasantly surprised at how welcoming they were.

After having seen most of the country, I can honestly say that Massif Central is one of the loveliest places in France, and as George Sand's characters said, it is “[a place] without roads, without guides, without any facilities for locomotion, where … a soil cut up with deep ravines, crossed in every way by lofty walls of lava, and furrowed by numerous torrents.”

During our 3-week trip to France with my parents, I wanted to show them a part of the country they haven't seen before and that was not known to many tourists.  We decided we would base ourselves in a big city and do day trips throughout the region. We arrived in Albi late in the evening after driving all day from Strasbourg (about 9 hours).  Needless to say, we were tired and in desperate need of a good meal and a place to stay, and we’d drove into Albi thinking that being one of the few bigger towns in the region, it would suffice in providing us with both.

Little did we know how beautiful it was! Albi was one of the loveliest cities we’d been to in France, and what made our stay even more special was to see how genuinely warm and caring the people were.

Especially on our first evening when we walked into one of the restaurants situated near the bank of Tarn River, we were uncertain how we would be received.  When the owner of the restaurant came out to greet us with a stern look on his faces, we began to regret not stopping at a roadside fast food joint.  However, once we sat down and began going through the menu, and were baffled by some of the local specialties that neither my husband and I were familiar with, not only did the owner patiently explain every item to us, but also said to my parents who didn’t speak the language, “Don’t worry.  I will bring you something you’d like.” as if we were guests in his home.

It was a wonderful way to start our family trip through France, and everywhere we went, we were treated with incomparable hospitality. Even after all these years, it remains to be one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had.
les Eyzies-de-Tayac (les Eyzies)
Dordogne is a idyllic region southwest of Massif Central filled with stunning chateaux, perfectly preserved medieval towns and villages, unspoiled countryside and prehistoric caves, and driving through it, we were privy to some of the most unique and breathtaking landscape in Europe.
Sarlat-la-Canéda (Sarlat)
Sarlat is a picturesque town located in the heart of France, and although it’s the best-preserved medieval town in southwestern France representative of 14th century France, or Europe for that matter, due to its isolated location, tourism-wise, it remains to be one of the least developed places in France.

Walking through this gorgeous town filled with so many ancient buildings, we felt as if we’d stepped back into another age.  My favorite experience in Sarlat was going to the outdoor market on the weekend, and having a lot of scrumptious meals, as even the rustic food are prepared with the freshest ingredients from local farmers.  Oh what I would give to taste cassoulet in Sarlat again!
All the guide books may rave about Mont Saint Michel, but I prefer Rocamadour.  Located about 100 miles north of Toulouse, Rocamadour is a pectacular natural and religious site perched high on a rocky plateau.  The name literally derives from “roc”, which translates into rock, and “Amadour” named after the Saint whose body was known to be preserved in the area.

Aside from being one of the most spectacular sites in France, Rocamadour serves an important pilgrimage destination.
From very early times, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady existed here, looked after by a few Benedictine monks, but it was only after the discovery of the perfectly-preserved body of Saint Amadour in 1166 that a pilgrimage began to develop. This flourished until the 15th century and brought great wealth, which saw the development of the monastic buildings (now gone), the shrines, seven in all, the village itself, amenities such as a pilgrim hospital, water cisterns, etc., plus the essential defenses: castle, ramparts and fortified gates, of which several are intact or still easily visible.
Today, tourists come to Rocamadour for its religious interest, historical significance, beautiful architecture, and most of all, for the spectacular views, and for us, staying in Rocamadour, especially our favorite Hotel Beau Site, was a truly unique experience we would never forget.

Le Puy-en-Velay (le Puy)
With only few days left on our trip, we wanted to explore more of this beautiful region instead of heading back to Alsace.  My father suggested stopping by a town called le Puy, where Romanesque churches, a cathedral, and medieval houses were built on top of a steep volcanic spires.  By then, we’d been to so many great cities and sites in the region, and I doubted anything could top what we’d seen … boy, was I wrong.  Once again, we were blown away by le Puy, which surpassed anything we could have imagined, and it turned out to be one of the most extraordinary sights in France. 


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