Think of the South of France and a sundog-framed reverie of bronzed gamines frolicking on golden beaches might come to mind. It seems a place powered by UV and populated by the sort of sweet summer children depicted in sunnier Vadim or Godard films. But I personally hold that it’s even lovelier in autumn’s dusk when Parisians have wrapped up their grands vacances, non-residents dissipate and life goes on much as it has for centuries.
In search of cheaper accommodation and to avoid school-holiday hordes, each year, come late autumn, my family would load up our car and head to the Dordogne. As we approached the department, the bent-headed sunflowers seemed to be exhaling sighs of relief, vineyards were aflame with turning leaves and the land itself appeared to be enjoying a well-earned break too. The kind of cyclical beauty that brings you into step with the countryside, denoting spent harvests and fresh vats of new wine. We would stay in garish Christmas-coloured Eurocamp tents and easily take up the Périgordine good life of bike rides to petite villages, afternoon dips in the lazy Dordogne River and indulging in sugary crêpes and towering sundaes.
These days, after years of longingly gazing out at the Loire Valley’s fairy-tale châteaux (notably Ussé, which directly inspired Sleeping Beauty) en route to Aquitaine, I would probably upgrade my hideaway to a grander residence, say the many-turreted Domaine des Etangs (above) or neoclassical Château les Merles, handily buffered by vineyards. But otherwise I wouldn’t change much else. Part of the appeal of visiting the south late in the season is the truly timeless feel of French village life, to the point where you’re living through a pleasant cliché. It feels like someone smashed the clock a century or so ago and scenes of elderly men playing boules in market squares and ladies in housecoats pausing from chores for a sneaky cigarette are part of the reassuring rhythm of life.
And the market remains the lively locus of it all, come rain or shine (and there’s still plenty of shine to be had at this time of year). Grabbing a basket and joining in the fray beneath the colourful awnings laid out along the winding medieval streets of perfectly preserved Domme, Sarlat-la-Canéda and on-high Rocamadour is an edifying ritual in all senses. This is where Périgordine dining tables are filled and the full spread of appellations and makers marked with authentication acronyms (AOC, IGP…) is temptingly laid out – especially at this time of year, when gold-dust truffles have been freshly snuffled, ceps and walnuts are ripe for the picking and even punnets of fat strawberries can still be enjoyed. Stalls are piled with gnarled bloomy-rinded Cabécous, pocked Trappe d’Echourgnac, Époisses oozing with noxious deliciousness; sticky nut cakes and liqueurs; gilt tins of foie gras; Bayonne ham haunches; and rural curiosities: knickers with armpit-height waistbands, pygmy goats, blackened tourteau fromagés cakes.
It’s a heady appetiser for seasonal dining (after all, the chefs will be shopping right alongside you) on the kind of dishes that make you nostalgic even if you weren’t raised on them. Say, warming cassoulets, gizzard-strewn salads, fat-steeped duck with Sarladaise potatoes and thick pescajoune pancakes with apples. Anything less than a two-hour lunch is a mere snack and meals drift late into wine-fuzzed darkness; and whether you’re sitting on a former rampart, slack-jawed at the verdure of the Dordogne Valley below, or in a cobbled square loomed over by a Gothic church, each setting is a heartbreaker.
There’s also plenty to do off-season: feed soporific monkeys at La Forêt des Singes, wander hand in hand through the artful parterre of Eyrignac and Marqueyssac gardens, sample St Emilion’s finest vineyards and catch Rocamadour’s hot-air-balloon festival. You may sacrifice a few sunny days visiting this late in the year, but France does storms with the same passion it gives to sex and pastry-crafting and there’s nothing quite like the tempestuous display of lightning forks duelling it out in the sky as you watch safely under a canopied terrace or in a soft warm bed as rain thunders soothingly on a château roof.
We understand the Covid situation in France restricts all but essential travel at the moment. Our aim for this mini-series is instead to provide inspiration for hopefully safer travel seasons