Exploring the back roads and charming wine villages of southern France

By Philip Marr
This article appears on page 6 of the December 2015 issue.
The west-side towers and ramparts of the Carcassonne citadel.

When my wife, Carolyn, and I reflect on our April 2015 trip to France, we inevitably focus on our love of Saint-Émilion, the Dordogne region, the castle within a castle of Carcassonne, the wines of Burgundy and all the expressways, country roads and medieval streets undertaken in our little white Peugeot. 

We had little in the way to guide us: a foldout map provided by the rental-car company and the small city illustrations in our Rick Steves guidebook. Carolyn imposed a ban on GPS and smartphones, which meant relying on instinct and our wits without the comforting aid of technology. 

Our travels took us down many back roads, with their endless successions of roundabouts and the resulting confusion about which direction we were heading. There were times we literally went ’round and ’round in circles. 

Was there bickering? Sure, some. “Turn here!” “Didn’t you see the sign?” “Are you sure we go this way?” But we would meet the challenge, get back on track and eventually reach our destination.


We began with a drive south along the Atlantic seaboard from Mont Saint-Michel. With only a vague notion of an itinerary, my wife opened the guidebook and read about a picturesque village northeast of Bordeaux called Saint-Émilion.

The peaceful route offered green foothills and wide-open pastures dotted with cows, windmills and the occasional long and winding dirt road leading to a stately wine château. 

Arriving in Saint-Émilion, we parked on the outskirts of town and came to a rise overlooking the village square. Below was a charming scene of al fresco dining amongst an old, solitary shade tree and elegant 13th-century limestone ruins. We immediately fell in love. 

That night we walked the empty cobblestone streets, the limestone buildings bathed in moonlight eliciting a golden hue. Our room (E130, or $143, per night, double, including breakfast) at the 3-star Au Logis des Remparts (phone +33557247043, www.logis
was an easy stroll from the center of town. Built from old Roman walls, the hotel felt organic to this historic town. 

Inside, we were afforded a view of the Gothic bell tower of the Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion, backlit by the moon and framed between the thick stone cutouts that served as our bedroom window. 

On the road

We hit the road early the next morning, traveling the deserted country roads among the vineyards, wildflowers, low rustic fences and sun-dappled trees, dew glistening from the branches and leaves like tiny clusters of diamonds. We took in the perfection of the moment, the start of a long and happy day on the road. 

Al fresco dining in the charming historic wine village of Saint-Émilion.

As we entered the province of Périgord, we found ourselves driving through a dense canopy of tall trees along the steep, dark banks of the Dordogne River. It felt like we’d entered a world vastly different from that of the Bordeaux region. 

Our beacon was the bastide (fortress) town of Sarlat, world renowned for such gastronomic staples as foie gras, duck confit and succulent black truffles. The old cité was well preserved and car-free, the once-fortified stone walls, now softened in appearance, gracing the town in an effortless ambiance of natural charm. 

Glad to stretch our legs, we strolled the cobbled streets and found a quiet café nestled among the ochre-colored sandstone buildings and elegant church steeples. 

After lunch and stocking up on tins of foie gras, we were back on the country roads toward the winding Dordogne and one of many adjacent towns, La Roque-Gageac. Built ingeniously into the hillside cliffs along the river, the village meandered up the cliffs along narrow streets, the structures like the carved-out cave dwellings of nearby Cro-Magnon man yet capped with traditional Périgord roofs and yellow-bricked facades. 

Farther down the river we came to the impressive Beynac, another once-heavily fortified bastide town. Crowning the cliffs and offering a sweeping view of the green valley and the wooded hills, Beynac had the distinction of being seized by the English king, Richard the Lionheart, in 1197.

We hiked up to the plateau over restored stone walkways, passing homes that exuded well-worn beauty, complete with tidy gardens and courtyards and facades weathered to perfection. 

Upon reaching the Château de Beynac, I was impressed by the immense, rugged stone walls topped with rows of thick wooden spikes, the heavy wooden doors barring entry and the looming gray watchtower piercing the sky like an obelisk. 

On to Carcassonne

Back on the road, we headed past Toulouse for the 3-hour journey to Carcassonne. A friend had suggested this storied Cathar castle that, over the centuries, had expanded its defensive perimeter to become a large spiral of fortified walls, a castle within a castle. Having spent all day exploring the riches of the Périgord communes, we arrived at our new destination in Languedoc at dusk. 

The serpentine Dordogne River below the bastide town of Beynac.

As we approached on the expressway, the Old City of Carcassonne loomed — a mighty fortress city illuminated in amber light. We checked into our hotel across from the train station, Hotel Terminus (2 Avenue Maréchal Joffre; www.soleilvacances.com/
. Although the hotel’s 1913 Belle Époque luster was now faded, we found it reasonably priced (E110 per night, double) and enjoyed the interesting adornments, such as the grand spiral staircase and the front desk’s original telephone switchboard. 

Though hungry, we were driven by a stronger desire to first explore the old citadel. It was late in the evening, but we took a chance and drove to the castle, driving around the seemingly endless perimeter until we finally stumbled onto a nearly vacant parking lot. 

We stopped at the foot of a massive wall and walked toward a wide platform that turned out to be the drawbridge of the Narbonne Gate, the main entrance to the walled city. All visitors to this main gate are greeted by the replica of a bust of Lady Carcas, whom, legend has it, saved the city from being overrun by catapulting a fattened pig over the walls to show that the city had plenty of food and would not be surrendering anytime soon, discouraging their attackers. 

Amazingly, the gates were open, and, like kids out after curfew, we wandered around the deserted streets until we came across a lively dining establishment, L’Auberge des Musées (17 rue du grand Puits; restomusee-carcassonne.com). This casual, down-home bistro served classic regional fare like cassoulet (15.50, or $17), along with carafes of local red wine. This hearty, meaty Languedoc staple, with its sausage, white beans, vegetables and duck confit, more than satisfied our hunger and made this late-night sojourn all the more rewarding. 

Returning the following morning for a proper tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, it became clear that this was not a château of a single royal family. Instead, it was an entire city encircled in robust fortification, and, within that, yet another entire city, one more prominent and insular and completely encased, with additional layers of walled protection and state-of-the-art medieval armament. 

We explored the labyrinth of cobbled streets and high walls and sentry towers, then made our way toward the mostly Gothic Basilica of St. Nazaire before eventually visiting rooms housing tombs, early Christian artifacts and a 12th-century mural depicting Saracen knights in combat.


Later, we continued our drive east along the outskirts of Roussillon before heading up along the Mediterranean coast toward historic Provence, showcasing ancient Roman architectural marvels in Orange, Vers-Pont-du-Gard and Avignon. 

We decided to make our home base in the scrappy backwater town of Arles, along the Rhône. Initially, Carolyn and I were drawn there by the legacy of Vincent van Gogh, but over time our fondness was fostered by the city’s gritty charm, accessible Roman ruins and excellent Provençal dining. 

After some searching, we booked three nights at the reasonably priced Le Calendal (5 rue Porte de Laure; lecalendal.com), in the Old Quarter. Our cozy hotel room (E129 per night, double, including breakfast) looked out at the well-preserved Roman amphitheater, its starkly bleached-white exterior a moon’s glow. 

Carolyn and Philip Marr in front of the ancient Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard.

Throughout Arles, Roman ruins were plentiful and included a stage theater, the remnants of the 4th-century Baths of Constantine and, just outside the city’s crumbling walls, the expansive necropolis of Alyscamps. But, seen prominently through the window above our bed, it was the impressive first-century amphitheater that stole our hearts. 

Working class and weathered, Arles had a sense of lurking danger, and as the sun began to set and we walked the darkened, colorless streets in search of that which inspired van Gogh and Gauguin, we wondered if we’d instead find ourselves robbed at knifepoint. However, the threat was more atmospheric than it was a reality, and during our four days in the city we grew fond of the notable lack of tourists, tacky shops and signage. 

Arles, we decided, was authentic and gritty and special. It certainly didn’t hurt that off the mean streets were some quaint and outstanding bistros, the kinds of places where the ambiance and the food lived up to the sometimes-far-reaching expectations of Americans in Provence. 

Along the Rhône

It was a chilly morning as we drove toward the Rhône, where we expected to make a few turns and be back on the main road. As we made our way deeper into the Old City, I noticed the already narrow streets were constricting into a maze of neighborhood passageways, the old, chipped and peeling walls closing in on all sides. 

We came to a tight intersection, hemmed in by buildings in the front and on the sides, and, as I started to turn, it became clear that we were kind of stuck. Soon another car came up behind, the driver laying on the horn. It took a few jerky maneuvers, but eventually we were freed from the medieval labyrinth and back on the open road.

Traveling north along the Rhône, we stopped at more of the Roman monuments scattered throughout Provence. One such marvel was Pont du Gard, a 3-level aqueduct built by the Romans during the first century AD. Standing 50 meters tall and in near-perfect condition, this feat of civil engineering supplied the city of Nîmes with water and stretched over 50 kilometers. 

Farther north was the town of Orange, famous for its pristine Théâtre Antique et du musée d’Orange. The structure is over 2,000 years old yet is in perfect condition, one of few Roman theaters with its rear wall (scaenae frons) intact. 


On the A6, past the Rhône River region, we journeyed through the iconic vineyards, rolling foothills and fertile valleys of Burgundy. After the pleasant drive, we arrived at our inn for our final two nights, a former 18th-century farmhouse turned 4-star B&B. Only 10 minutes from the central Burgundian town of Beaune, Hôtel le Clos (22 rue des Gravières; phone +33380259798) was the perfect base in which to explore the area. 

The rooms were spacious and simple and very comfortable (E125 per night, double). Outside, we took in the grounds populated with old vineyard equipment: a hand-operated iron-and-wood wine press and conical woven-wicker harvest baskets. 

The following morning we ventured into the town of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. Surrounded by the gently sloping hills of the Côte d’Or and many famous wine villages, Beaune captured the overall charm and splendor of the French wine culture with its central square focused on gourmet dining and boutique shopping, including a preponderance of wine shops. 

The 18th-century farmhouse Hôtel le Clos, which served as our B&B just outside Beaune.

Central to the soul of this classic French town was the restored Hôtel-Dieu, or the Hospices of Beaune, easily recognizable by its multicolored pitched rooftop and slender, elegant spires, an example of Burgundian-Flemish art and ironwork from the 15th century. 

Following a recommendation, we decided on an early-evening dinner at Le Gourmandin (8 Place Carnot; phone +33380240788). The restaurant was crowded, so we took the only remaining spot, a small table against the wall and in front of the bar where staff was hurrying back and forth. Even given that challenge, the food and ambiance were so enjoyable that Carolyn and I had a perfectly romantic dinner. 

Offering local specialties like bœuf Bourguignon (E35) and duck terrine as well as an interesting wine selection, Le Gourmandin was a fine choice. 

The next day we met a friend, with plans to explore nearby Montrachet. Back in the Peugeot and on local back roads, we eventually found Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet (1, rue de Poiseul), a wine bar and tasting terrace run by Julien Wallerand, son of the well-known sommelier Jean-Claude Wallerand. 

While in these reputed wine regions, I often found myself intimidated, but Julien and Caveau de Puligny were the perfect antidote. The shop was a small, unpretentious affair, and Julien was the perfect guide to some of the finest wines of famed Montrachet. 

After a pleasant afternoon of sampling good chardonnay, we departed more knowledgeable about French wine and regional culture and armed with a few choice bottles of fine white wine. 

The next morning, we sadly started toward Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was appropriate that we misjudged our travel time and nearly missed our flight back to Los Angeles; we really didn’t want our trip to end, both of us feeling we had much more to explore and savor. As the road home stretched out before us, we were already mapping our return.