My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Duck Duck Goose: Dining in the Dordogne

Here in France’s Dordogne River Valley, every menu begins and ends with waterfowl: duck, duck, goose.

Sarlat RestaurantThe most prized poultry product are the livers of force-fed geese who fill the farms around the Dordogne — better known as foie gras. Duck meat is very popular, too. Ordering the basic €20 three-course menu at restaurants in Dordogne, the first course is invariably a choice between foie gras or duck gizzard salad.

I’m not a huge fan of foie gras — more on that later — so on my first night in Sarlat, I went with the latter. Now, my Grandma, raised in the Great Depression, always eagerly snatched up the gizzards that came with our Thanksgiving turkey. I’ve never had the nerve to eat a gizzard. But tonight, I figured, what the hey? If I like gizzards anywhere, it’ll be in Sarlat.

The salad came: a nice bed of lettuce, lightly dressed, with slices of flavorful smoked duck breast and some still-sizzling gizzards. My first bite of gizzard came with that metallic pang of organ meat. Not my favorite (I’m not that hardcore of a foodie). But not entirely objectionable, either. Mixing the different parts of the salad — greens, smoked duck breast, and gizzards — gave each forkful a more palatable balance, and by the time I was a third of the way through my salad, I had forgotten that this was a new culinary frontier. Will I order the gizzard salad the next time I go to a French bistro in Seattle? Eh, no. But I’m glad I tried it.

Then came the main course: sautéed duck breast, very flavorful, served on a bed of stewed “coriander” (cilantro) with a side of wok vegetables, giving it an Asian spin. Delicieux!Duck Dinner

But perhaps the best part of the meal was the side of pommes de terre sarladaises — “Sarlat-style potatoes.” Thin slices of potatoes are fried up in duck fat, and loaded up with an abundance of garlic and salt. Now that’s something I could eat every day.

As for that foie gras: Here in the Dordogne, it’s only a matter of time before you have some. I’ve tried it several times, prepared many different ways. And even though I realize this will cost me my foodie cred, I have to be honest: I’m just not that into it. No matter how good it is, it always has that distinctive liver taste that hits my palate wrong.

I have a theory that, just like people either love or hate the taste of cilantro, there’s a “liver gene” that some of us have, and others don’t. Guiding our Rick Steves tours in Eastern Europe, I especially enjoy taking our groups to a family-style dinner on our first night in Hungary (Europe’s most underrated culinary destination…but that’s a topic for another time). Our tour members dig into a huge spread of Hungarian specialties, and without exception, they declare it the best meal of the trip.

Confit de canard is one of those French foods that sound bizarre, but taste delicious. It's literally a duck in a can: processed and preserved in its own fat, and later cooked in that same fat. I had one of the best confit de canard I've ever had at a humdrum rest stop in the Dordogne.
Confit de canard is one of those French foods that sound bizarre, but taste delicious. It’s literally a duck in a can: processed and preserved in its own fat, and later cooked in that same fat. On this trip, I enjoyed one of the best confit de canard I’ve ever had, at a humdrum rest stop in the Dordogne.

But something interesting always happens: As the plate of goose liver circles the table, people either cringe and pass it on, or dig in for seconds and thirds. It’s clear to me that liver is a rare food that is not an acquirable taste: Either you love it or you hate it. And since I hate it, that means it’s wasted on me…so I’m happy to let someone else have my portion, while I stick to the duck.

The one silver lining in my distaste for foie gras is that I get to sidestep the brouhaha. Foodies get self-righteous about eating foie gras, animal-rights activists get self-righteous about condemning it, and everyone comes away with hurt feelings. Rick’s take on this resonates with me: If you hate factory farming and are opposed to the way animals are mistreated to provide human beings with food, you’re perfectly justified to rail against foie gras. But if you’re fine eating scrambled eggs or drinking milk, protesting foie gras is a wee bit hypocritical. People eat animals. If you’re OK with that, you’re OK with foie gras; if not, foie gras falls somewhere on the list of abuses of humans against animals.

It’s Market Day in Sarlat

Twice a week, the normally traffic-free lanes of Sarlat are clogged with a human traffic jam of shoppers. Wednesday and Saturday are the town’s market days. And in all my travels, I’ve rarely seen a market better than Sarlat’s.

Sarlat Market OV1

As the day dawns, Sarlat’s sun-baked streets are jammed with tables, each one a cornucopia overflowing with Dordogne Valley products. Produce is delicately arranged on a rickety wooden table — little more than a rough plank resting on sawhorses, groaning under the weight of lettuce, artichokes, leeks, potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and radishes.

Plunging deeper, I’m immersed in a vibrant world of sights, smells, and sounds: Baskets neatly filled with oddly shaped sausages. Mountains of olives. Carefully sealed bags of dried mushrooms. Loaves of rustic breads. Refrigerated trucks displaying meats, fish, and tiny wheels and pyramids of goat cheese. A vivid festival of flowers. Tree stump-sized wheels of mountain cheese. Kitchen tools, from newfangled walnut crackers to a huckster demonstrating the sharpness of his kitchen knives. Snail shells already pre-filled with garlicky-green butter, ready for escargot. Mammoth hunks of nougat the size of car tires. Tidy rows of jams, jellies, preserves, and walnut oil. A young, dreadlocked farmer selling more different varieties of onions than I realized even existed. Bowls of colorful, intensely flavored tapenades. Giant slabs of fruitcakes — nut, orange, fig — waiting to be sliced up and sold by the weight. A rainbow of colorful little beanies used to cover your fruit or bread basket. And, of course, cans of artisanal foie gras and other duck and goose products. (Confit de canard may be the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat from a can.)

Sarlat Olives 1

Sarlat Sausages

Sarlat Cheese

CH15MaySarlat_130

Sarlat Covers

The longest line is at the strawberry stand — a good sign. You smell the strawberries before you see them. I try to stake my claim in the queue, but quickly learn that no-nonsense French grannies are shameless about butting in line. Elbows up! I trudge patiently to the front and am given a choice: charlotte or gariguette? I splurge on the pricier, rounder, more pungent charlotte style, at €3.50 a basket, instead of the cheaper, torpedo-shaped gariguette style, at €2.50.

It’s a good thing I got my shopping in early. Shortly after the noon bell tolls, everyone starts packing up. Shoppers disperse — instantly filling up the town’s many al fresco café tables — while merchants crate up unsold goods for tomorrow’s market in Domme. They’ll all be back in Sarlat on Saturday — just like they have been, twice a week, for decades. By then, I’ll be in Normandy, halfway across the country. But I’ll still be tasting those strawberries.

Sensational Sarlat, My Favorite Town in France

Steve Smith, who co-authors our France guidebook with Rick, favors the word “sensational.” I don’t tend to describe things as “sensational,” but if ever a town deserves that superlative, it’s my favorite town in France: Sarlat.

For a traveler, Sarlat ticks all the boxes: It’s beautiful and idyllic, but still feels real. It’s tourist-friendly without being objectionably touristy. It’s just the right size — about 10,000 people — but because it’s a population center for the most scenic stretch of the Dordogne River Valley, it has the bustling metabolism of a city double its size.

Sarlat Market OV2

Sarlat is built out of a soft-focus, distinctly hued limestone that’s perfectly described in our France guidebook as “lemony.”  The only other place I’ve seen that’s so liberally brushed with this palette is England’s Cotswold villages…putting Sarlat in pretty good company. (In this photo, Sarlat is busy with its twice-weekly market. More on that in my next post.)

Sarlat Market Hall

Sarlat decided to convert this old church into a market hall. The Jurassic Park-sized doors are cracked open each morning, when the vendors inside are selling local products.

Sarlat Tower

Sarlat sweetly fills a valley with its stony homes. The church/market hall is equipped with an open-air glass elevator that zips sightseers up, Willy Wonka-style, to this viewpoint. The worthwhile trip comes with a little English commentary. My guide explained that the town’s full name, “Sarlat-la-Canéda,” represents the two communities — Sarlat and the much smaller La Canéda — that merged into one. (No connection to the Great White North, however.)

Sarlart Geese

This statue — on the “Square of the Geese” (Place des Oies) — makes it clear who butters Sarlat’s bread: the buttery livers of force-fed geese, better known as foie gras.  In American foodie circles, chefs emphasize taking great care with ingredients as a way to show respect to the animal who made the ultimate sacrifice to please your taste buds. While that’s a relatively new (and still minority) view in the US, Sarlat is way ahead of the curve — literally putting its favorite food on a pedestal. (I discuss the Dordogne Valley’s “duck, duck, goose” approach to cuisine in this post.)

Sarlat Mansion

With so many gorgeous mansions, Sarlat had me wondering what life was like behind those yellow facades. I found my answer at Manoir de Gisson, a noble townhouse-turned-museum just steps from the goose statue. This fortified spiral stairwell connects its four period-decorated floors. Although the English descriptions were pretty dry, the space itself stoked my imagination; I enjoyed daydreaming about what it would be like to live in this splendid burg a century or five ago.

And, just because I’m so head-over-heels about this town, here are a few more pretty pictures of sensational Sarlat:

Sarlat Shops

Sarlat Church

 

Sarlat Night Square

Endearing Encounters with French Innkeepers

Travelers tell me that they find Rick Steves guidebooks unusually accurate, thoughtful, and practical. There’s a reason: We still update all of our books in person, either every year (if there’s a year printed on the front cover) or every other year (if there’s an “edition” printed on the front cover). And when I’m updating a book, yes, I really do visit every single hotel, restaurant, museum, train station, tourist information office, laundromat, and so on — all in person.

French hoteliers, so proud of what they do, display guidebook endorsements like merit badges.
French hoteliers, so proud of what they do, display guidebook endorsements like merit badges.

That personal touch shines through even more, I believe, in our co-authored books, where one expert handles the update each edition (in constant collaboration with Rick, of course). I do this in Eastern Europe, but here in France, I’m on Steve Smith’s turf. And it’s quite touching to see the personal connection that many businesses in our book feel with Steve. They ask after him like he’s a friend they haven’t seen in a year…because that’s essentially what he is. Steve has handpicked — and carefully cultivated relationships with — each and every business that appears in Rick Steves France. That level of dedication and intimacy really comes through in our readers’ experience.

I’m always pressed for time when researching, but here in France, updating the hotels is particularly demanding. French hoteliers are so proud of their properties, they want to show me every square inch. And Steve’s accommodations aren’t just cookie-cutter; they have real character.

I had one particularly lengthy, but very enjoyable, interaction at a countryside hotel near the Dordogne River Valley, called Moulin de Fresquet. The owners, Gérard and Claude, have converted an ancient mill into an idyllic retreat. Gérard greeted me in the driveway and proceeded to show me each of their five rooms — all of them different, but all of them equally well cared for. He told me about the ghost who haunts the mill, showed me a copy of the innkeeper’s memoir he wrote and published (unfortunately, so far available only in French), and took me on a guided tour of the lush, parklike grounds. The place is less a hotel than an enchanting fantasyland.

Dutifully checking the details in our book, I asked Gérard about the duck pond that our listing mentioned. His eyes fell. “Sadly,” he said, “we no longer have ducks in our pond. A hawk moved in and began picking them off, one each day, until they were all gone. Now we just have a few passing ducks who rest here briefly.”

When I was leaving, Gérard asked me, “Excuse me. Do you know what happened to Karen Brown?” It took me a moment to realize who he meant. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Karen Brown wrote a series of guidebooks highlighting romantic, upscale, characteristic inns. (Back then, Rick used to say, “My splurges are Karen Brown’s slums.”) She had a very devoted following, but her niche became one of the casualties when printed guidebooks were eclipsed by online sources.

Genuine affection filled Gérard’s voice as he described how Karen would come personally to visit and update her guidebook each year, and even brought her entire family on holiday once. This wasn’t just a business relationship; it was a friendship. “I wrote a letter to her several months ago and never heard back,” Gérard told me. Since Karen and I are both in the guidebook biz, he figured maybe I knew her. (Karen, if you’re reading this, get in touch with Gérard and Claude! You know, they worry.)

Accommodations with personality are increasingly rare in our mass-produced, crowdsourced age. Most people want to quickly find a hotel online, book it instantly, and tick it off their list. But visiting this and so many other lovingly run accommodations throughout France, I feel proud to be part of an organization that still values people-to-people connections…even if we’re a bit old-fashioned. I can only hope to have enough of an impact that many years from now, my friends in Gdansk, Dubrovnik, or Budapest will ask themselves, “I wonder whatever happened to that Cameron guy from Rick Steves?”

Amazing Albi

Specializing in Eastern Europe, I spend a lot of time in Europe’s little countries, where there’s a finite number of cities worth exploring. Traveling through France, though, I’m struck by how deep this country’s bench is. You could spend weeks in France, never set foot in the heavy hitters, and still have a great trip. One of my favorite examples of this is the utterly underrated city of Albi.

Like its most famous former resident, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi is a lovable underdog. Sitting an hour off the freeway between Carcassonne and the Dordogne, Albi gets missed by most tourists. Maybe that’s why it’s such a delight. It’s a red-brick, sun-parched town with a  strollable old center, a magnificent fortress-church, and a half-day’s worth of engaging sightseeing.

Albi Church Ext

Albi was the home city of the Cathars, those “heretical” Christian rebels who stood up to the Pope in the Middle Ages. (They’re also called the Albigensians, after their home city.) After they were defeated, the Vatican built this huge, humorless cathedral — more fortress than church — as a stake in the heart of Albi, and the Albigensians.

Albi Church Int

Inside, the cathedral’s opulent artwork drives home this same fire-and-brimstone message. The Last Judgment altarpiece makes the consequences of disobeying the Church gruesomely clear.

Albi Garden

Next to the cathedral sits the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, with the finest collection of the talented artist’s work outside of Paris. And just beyond is this stunning garden overlooking the Tarn River. Some cities are characterized by a color, and when I think of Albi, I think of the gentle maroon of sunbaked bricks.

Albi CloisterFrom the cathedral, inviting streets fan out through town. And, like any great city, Albi hides plenty of surprises behind its eye-pleasing veneer. This medieval cloister — packed with a picnicking field-trip group during my visit — is a tranquil eddy that sits, almost unmarked, off the main drag.

Castlenau Square

The fortified medieval villages (or bastides) in the countryside near Albi are equally enchanting. I dropped in on a few recommended in our Rick Steves’ France guidebook, but my favorite was Castelnau-de-Montmiral — with what may just be the cuddliest main square I’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t had a long drive ahead of me, I could have happily settled in here for a drink…or a week.

Most travelers give Albi a miss. But that’s a mistake. Stop here for a lunch break — or even spend the night — and you’ll have this fine city all to yourself.

Next stop: the Dordogne River Valley.