Ever since way back when, I’ve had a fascination with France. One of my first friends at primary school was French and I remember how interesting it was to go over to her house and smell the aromatic concoctions brewing in the kitchen and listen to the family conversing in French. At intermediate school we could do a project on anything we wanted that interested us – and I picked France.
Fast forward to *many* years later and I’m back on the other side of the world in France with my little family and I worked out this is around my ninth visit here. I can’t remember exactly as that includes a couple of day trips that we did from the UK when we used to live there to raid the supermarkets for cheap wine, bulk packets of washing powder (randomly heaps cheaper than it was in Britain) and stinky cheese. It’s our favourite country in the world and we are so happy to be ‘living the dream’ and spending the summer here.
Not only have we found our favourite country, but after travelling around a fair chunk of France over the years, we’ve found our favourite place in this vast land of marked regional differences. It’s our third visit to the Dordogne region, which is in the South West of France and the area we love the most. The Dordogne is green and lush, with stunning countryside that’s smattered with gorgeous little towns and villages, pretty rivers and filled with picture perfect stone buildings, bastides and more than 1,500 castles and chateau.
It’s an ancient land, with fascinating history dating back to the first humans with the caves at Lascaux, Roman ruins, a 300-year struggle between the English and French for sovereignty, the construction of all those marvellous castles to today where it’s now largely rural, peaceful and beautiful.
I thought I’d share with you a little bit about our life here.
We are staying near the town of Issigeac, around 15 minutes from Bergerac which is the main city in the area and conveniently a well-known wine region of France. We are renting a lovely gite (holiday home) called ‘Le Pigeonnier’ – so called because it would once have been home to pigeons! It’s a honey-coloured stone building that is typical of the area that still has 15 boulins (pigeon holes) dotted around the walls. We’re very happy with our little house which is part of a larger property complete with very friendly owners, a great pool and huge grounds which the kids have loved running around.
Le Pigeonnier has two bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen, bathroom and living room.
Five minutes drive up the road from our house is the gorgeous little town of Issigeac (pronounced kind of like Issy-Jack) with a history that blows our New Zealand minds! The current town was built in the middle ages with buildings from the 13th-18th century, but it was also a gallo-Roman villa during the 4th century and a monastery in the 6th century. A Benedictine abbey was established in the 12th century.
Fast forward to today and it’s a wonderfully preserved town, with a thriving Sunday market which attracts hundreds of people from all around the area – the town really comes to life!
The rest of the week it’s fairly quiet with a smattering of shops – cute little ‘shabby chic’ style clothes, antiques and jewellery, pottery ateliers, artists, 3 boulangeries, a boucherie, 2 hairdressers, 4 restaurants, a school, 2 real estate agents, a small Casino (grocery store), a pharmacy, health food store and a pub plus a couple of cafes. Pretty much everything you need!
We did a little walking tour around the Issigeac the other day, and here are some of the main buildings and features in the town (the information below is courtesy of the Issigeac Tourist Information Centre and it’s a bit Franglish!)
The Bishop’s Castle
Constructed in 1660 by Francois II de Salignac on medieval fortifications. Today it houses the Tourist Office in its old arched cellars.
The house known as the Tithe
A 17th century building with an imposing frame and roof. Only the first floor is medieval with its Gothic arched opening.
Timber framed houses
Many of the houses in the old part of Issigeac are built of a stone and wood combination. The technique consists of wooden verticles (sabliéres), horizontals (poteaux) and angles (obliques). The assembly was first done on the ground and the spaces created were then packed with straw, stones and bricks.
The House of Heads
Thought to be built in the 16th century, this house has a series of carved wooden heads by each window on the third story that decorate the facade by representing the grotesque art of the time!
The Rue d l’Oustal
This street was thought to be an old street of craftsmen. The houses are small with ground floors of stone protecting the workshop and half-timbered first floors housing the whole family.
The Mushroom House
This house is called the mushroom house due to its interesting shape – the wooden corbelling would have allowed for the passage of horse and carts underneath!
The Church of Saint Félicien
The church was commissioned by Armand de Gontaut-Biron, the bishop of Sarlat in the 15th century. It is a beautiful representation of late Gothic architecture and the octagonal bell-house dominates the whole village. Inside there are several statues from the 17th century and lovely stained glass windows.
Market day in Issigeac
Sunday is market day, and the whole town and surrounding villagers comes out along with a whole lot of tourists! It’s not just a place to buy your fruit, veg, cheese and meat from local producers, but for the locals a place to meet up with their neighbours, and enjoy a chat over a coffee or beer!
We’re really looking forward to the marché nocturne / night markets that begin at the end of June. On Thursday nights tables and chairs will be set up in the main square and you can buy your dinner off the various local vendors. Yum!
We’re really enjoying the much slower pace of life compared to the whirlwind travel we did in the first part of the year. It’s great to put down roots somewhere for a long period of time, and we love just pottering around all the local villages exploring, cooking delicious food (instead of eating out all the time) and going to the supermarket – instead of a chore like back at home it’s like entering a foodie themed Aladdin’s cave for us!
Our only commitment is on Wednesdays when the kids are enrolled at ‘Wordy Wednesdays’ at a bilingual school in nearby Saint-Columb-de-Lauzun. It’s a great programme run for mainly ex-pat Brit children (although some French kids attend as well) aged 4 – 11 to help them keep up their English reading and writing schools – as they obviously learn everything in French at school. Our two are really enjoying it so far, and making some friends 🙂
Sophie is also taking a drama class there and they’re putting on a production of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ at the end of June at the local salle des fêtes / village hall which we are all looking forward to attending! It’s a ‘bring a plate’ affair so we are working out which New Zealand culinary delight we’ll take along to share…..
Our French is coming along ok, but we wish of course we were more fluent. We can speak enough to get by at the market, in restaurants and at the supermarket, and we’re slowly getting a bit of an ear for what people are saying. But unfortunately we do have to resort to English for anything that’s too complicated – people are extremely nice about it though and appreciate that you’re making an effort. Every day we are picking up more new words and phrases. Google Translate is a big help 😉
The kids are doing well with it too – they’re now automatically reverting to French for hello, thank you, goodbye and a lot of the names for food. Soph is also very confident buying things in shops and asking for the bill in a restaurant.
It’s the longest day here soon, so there are a bunch of fetes and festivals taking place including the Bergerac Music Festival which we are looking forward to. We’re continuing to explore the local area and feel so glad that we can take our time and do it at a leisurely pace instead of trying to cram everything in to a week.
Just to mix things up we’re heading off to Morocco for a couple of nights at the end of next week – cheap flights and a 6 year old who’s desperate to go (her parent’s daughter!), so we’re looking forward to that.
When we get back it will be coming into July and all the summer festivities will be in full swing with lots of markets, fetes, events on at chateau plus fun sporting fixtures like the finals phase of the UEFA football tournament and the Tour de France.
Au revoir for now!