Looking for a romantic getaway that’s both low-key and not ultra-pricey? It’s just a quick trip from Paris.
Embarking on a pilgrimage to visit the wine regions of France is, more other than not, anything but low-key. Head to Burgundy, and you can sip some uber-decadent pours—with price tags to match. Fly into Bordeaux and, before you even have a glass in hand, you’ll find looming, 8-foot-tall sculptures of wine bottles perched on the end of the airport baggage carousels. From the get go, things can get a little, uh, intimidating if you’re not ready to wade waist-deep into the nuances of vineyard life or cough up some serious Euros.
That’s where the Dordogne comes in. It’s a thrifty gourmand’s dream destination, and a (slightly quirky) long weekend jaunt from Paris that’ll work on a budget, impress a lover, and mostly likely leave you wanting to buy a chateau of your very own. Located in Southwest France just an hour downwind from big brother Bordeaux, the quaint medieval villages, weekly markets and, yes, unusual wines of region somehow manage to still fly blissfully under-the-radar for most Americans. Get in on the secret.
What to Drink: Monbazillac
Dessert wines often get a bad rap in the U.S., believed to be too cloying or simply undesirable when compared to a post-dinner nip of sherry or brandy. But Monbazillac will turn you into a believer. Grown in and around the town of Bergerac, this deeply golden, late-harvest white wine has a candied fruit luster and concentrated richness that pairs dreamily with the region’s local delicacies, from foie gras to rabbit. It’s also, perhaps, the best bang-for-your-buck dessert wine to come out of France—or anywhere. For Monbazillac’s complexity, you can still snag an award-winning bottle for around $15. Yes, it’s sweet, but in a digestif-sized sip, can’t be beat.
Pro Tip: Visit with winemaker Christian Roche at Domaine De L’Ancienne Cure, where you can learn all about how his family has been protecting the Monbazillac AOC (official wine region designation) since the 1930s. Afterward, take a tour of the Chateau de Monbazillac, which is an honest-to-goodness castle and a local landmark.
Where to Eat: Le Vieux Logis, Tremolat
A Michelin-starred restaurant that’s both rural and regal, Le Vieux Logis is the place for an in-depth (delicious) schooling about the Dordogne’s local bounty. In warmer months, opt to sit outside under the lush trellis, which makes the dining experience feel like something out of The Secret Garden. In the fall or winter, try any pigeon dish that happens to appear on the menu (seriously, do it) and finish off your meal with a selection of regional cheeses and a nice glass of Armagnac, which is produced in nearby Gascony. (Then retire to the dark wood-covered library and lounge among the volumes like the true sophisticate you are.)
Pro Tip: The restaurant is also home to a hotel, so if you really fall in love with the storybook-like grounds, there’s no reason not to spend the night. Right? Right.
Where to Shop for Snacks: Sunday Market, Issigeac
A quaint medieval village with winding cobblestone streets, the weekly Sunday market in Issigeac has enough charm to make even the biggest culinary cynic wander around, starry-eyed, like Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (Only the object of your affection is the giant bag of local plums you’re about to scarf down, not some dude.) The Sunday market is always home to hyper-seasonal special events, from flower markets in March to pumpkin and squash celebrations in October, and when the time’s right, don’t miss out on buying as many fresh walnuts as possible. The region might be best known for foie gras, but they’re the sleeper hit.
Pro Tip: Plenty of top-notch antique shops are scattered around the market and just waiting to be rummaged through for the perfect keepsake. I once lugged a 10-pound, creepily painted wooden loon back from Issigeac in my carry-on (go big or go home, right?), but I’d recommend something a little less intense.
Where to Linger: Marqueyssac Gardens and Sarlat
Surreal is, perhaps, the only proper word to describe the looping, swirling maze of hedges that make up Marqueyssac Gardens, which have a whimsical complexity that would make Lewis Carroll blush. Plan on spending the entire day lost inside this piece of (beautifully sculpted) nature. Afterward, head to the nearby town of Sarlat for dinner, and pay a visit to one of several shops that sell row-after-row of fruit and vegetable-shaped marzipan like an uber-sweet produce aisle.
Pro Tip: If you propose to someone—anyone, even a stranger!—inside the Marqueyssac Gardens, they are legally required to say yes. (OK, I just made that up, but if you’re looking to propose and want to shore up your chances with some serious ambiance, do it here.)
The Nitty Gritty
Taking the train into Bergerac from Paris is an easy four-and-some-change hours, then renting a car is a must. Skip any sort of traditional hotel and opt for an old school, chateau-style operation, like Chartreuse du Bignac in Saint Nexans.
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