“Ver-r-r-y dangereuse,” intones Jamail. We’re visiting his palombiere—hunting cabin—deep in the forests of Aquitaine in Southwest France, where he organizes male-bonding parties to pop at “savage pigeons”—aka wild doves. (Turns out, the “dangereuse” part is simply the trap from which they’ll spring, rather than a reprise of an Alfred Hitchcock movie).
No shoot tonight, however. The “pop” we hear is the cork from a bottle—the first of several that will accompany the rustic feast Jamail prepares for guests in his cozy cab. And no—no pigeon on the menu. He’s substituted chicken stew. But first, some pate de foie gras, a specialty of Aquitaine (along with truffles, caviar, and other convincing reasons that life here is good). Then, a heap of snails, for the pigeon shooter also prides himself as hunter of escargot), Pop, another cork, and then the cheese. Finally, another regional specialty, plums. (Some end up as Armagnac.)
We’re on a quest to discover the secret gems of Aquitaine, and palombieres rank high among them. Beatrice and her husband, Jean-Philippe, are two more in the cast of characters whose delighted-to-meet-you welcomes are far more exuberant than the cool kiss-kiss of Paris…the folks who invoke those priceless “Remember ….?” memories long after the passport expires.
The couple looked at a decaying mill and saw an opportunity. They scrubbed and hammered it into a B&B that goes one better: an indoor pool, hamam and sauna. Well, two better: homemade cherry jam on our breakfast baguettes, accompanying coffee bowls as big as birdbaths.
Another is Fabrice, the Michelin-starred chef who offers cooking lessons to guests of the beyond-charming 18th-century Chateau Lassalle. Punch-drunk from an overnight flight, we flopped into the garden’s pool, then lapped up an alfresco dinner of Gascony’s specialties—foie gras prominent among them—as warm-up for next morning’s class.
For it, Fabrique says, “I imagine breakfast in Gascony” and then deconstructs it: its baguette, covered here with foie gras (Do we detect a dining theme?), sided by an onion confit jam; orange juice now glorified as orange/carrot/ginger; and, instead of Lipton’s, a “teabag” containing bits of ham, mushrooms, breadcrumbs. Max slices the foie, Michelle chops the onions, while I melt—literally, the chocolate for our dessert, and figuratively, in sheer, gluttonous pleasure.
Sated, we head for Neroc, a sweet medieval town that looks like the backdrop for a Renaissance Fair. We stroll under half-timbered buildings and the formidable castle of King Henry IV. An unexpected highlight: the trash collection. Here, it’s still done by cart and clopping horse.
From one horse to 2CV, or deux chevaux (two horses), the vintage, super-cool Beetle-like cars (mine was pink) which l’Echappee Gasconne (Gascony Escape) rents to tour the countryside, amid waves and bonjours from the less fortunate. Didier, our lead driver, guides us to visits at artisanal producers—wine, foie gras—then a riverside picnic: bread, charcuterie, cheese, pate, wine: How much more French can you get?
More toys for the boys: First a canoe paddle, then a houseboat cruise down a lazy canal ( guided, or do-it-yourself, after a quick tutorial) past columns of stately trees, waterside bistros and markets, waving to fellow boaters as we await our turn at the Baise River’s locks.
From the pastoral to the palatial: Sebastien was waiting as we pulled up to his pied-a-terre, Chateau Roquetalliade, a 12th-century castle—the quintessential round, four-towered kind kids make in the sand. This one’s been in his family for 700 years.
Not that there haven’t been renovations: an interior staircase replacing the original ladder to be pulled up in case of attack; windows instead of arrow slits; kitchen appliances to abet the roast-an-ox fireplace. But primarily, the carte-blanche contract of architect/artist Viollet-le-Duc in the 1800s, allowing (nay, encouraging) him to decorate every last surface with a jungle of plants, invent mobile curtains hiding secret doors; and carve many a snarky gargoyle. Sebastien will gladly sell you the wine his estate produces (hey, Bordeaux’s just down the road).
Everywhere we dine, Bordeaux wines—simple to complex, affordable to sacred—are venerated. But now we’re off to seek the Holy of Holies, the region’s legendary Sauternes, sweet and golden as honey. Overnighting in Chateau d’Arche, a Grand Cru Classe winery-cum-hotel, there’s a help-yourself bottle of the estate’s Sauternes in the lobby. And my room overlooks the fields of Chateau d’Yquem, the collector’s top-of-the-top.
Nearby, at the Maison du Sauternes, Helene urges us to try before we buy. Starting with Duc de Sauternes, a blend composed of drops from each of its 150 members (including Yquem), she defines your particular preference: sweeter? More dry? Affordable (many are) or more dear? We lunch in nearby Rouaillan, in a brasserie offering salade Nicoise, lamb stew and crème brulee for 9 euro—another reason to head for affordable Aquitaine. Or, how about our final dinner on a postcard-pretty square in the gorgeous riverside capital, Bordeaux itself: three courses plus wine for 13—just one more reason to hop aboard Air France (free in-flight wine, may I add) and fall in love with Aquitaine. For information, visit www.franceguide.com and www.tourisme-aquitaine.fr/en.
Dance club, electronic floor
QC de Monbadon
Club for music frenzy
Sauna le Saint Jean
Hot & sexy
Outrageous drag performers