When you’re off on holiday, there’s something magical about leaving your comfort zone and trying new things. After all, if we didn’t love challenging ourselves in other countries a bit, how come holidays abroad are so popular? Still, a little prior knowledge is always a good thing, so in order to get the best out of our luxury villas in Dordogne, we spoke to Phillida Cole, who owns and runs the region’s spectacular Astier Petit Chateau. Here’s what she had to say about what to do, see and eat!
Tell us a bit about yourself… What do you do, how long have you lived there and what makes you an expert in the region?
We bought our home here in the Dordogne almost ten years ago when we moved lock stock and barrel from Wiltshire in search of a better quality of life. My husband’s work takes him abroad for a lot of the time, but when we are all together there is no place in the world better than home and a poolside BBQ with friends. Since living here I have run a small business and been able to explore the area in my own time, taking in the many sites, cities and local attractions on offer both within our hometown and in the wider area.
Why should people travel to your region at least once in their lifetime?
The heritage is unique with the oldest prehistoric caves in the world, two unique monolithic churches at St Emilion and Auberterre (the spire is the only thing above ground) and some of the most famous vineyards in the world.
And what makes people come back time and time again?
We’re only six hours to the nearest ferry port, and with a choice of three airports a real change of scene, culture and climate is easy to come back to time and again.
Summarize the region for us in three words!
Culture, Cuisine and Climate
Have you had any famous visitors or well-known events take place in the region?
Do Henry and VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine count? [Ed: Oliver thinks that they very much do.]
Are there any interesting historical stories of the region?
There is a legend here that an old man was carrying a sack full of chateaux on his back which seemed to get heavier with time. Eventually, to lighten his load, he started throwing the chateaux out left right and centre and if you travel along many of the roads here today you will see chateaux after chateaux in all directions, many of which you can visit.
Time for some travel inspiration – give us your recommendations on…
The first thing to do – drop your bags and… have a cold beer under the St Emilion vine in the gardens while contemplating the week ahead.
Don’t miss! St Emilion, Auberterre, Brantom, Sarlat, the Aquarium, the chocolate factory, the walnut oil factory, the fresh weekly market, the caves, the dinosaur park, wine tasting, bike rides, the beach and playground at the lake, the chateaux, the topiary gardens of Marssayac… I could go on!
Best restaurant? La Palombia by the Church for a five-course meal starting with local foie gras, or Le Chapeau rouge for the tastiest steak frites ever! Both of them are in St Astier.
Best drinking spot? Bar du Central, also in St Astier.
Best activity? Cycling, canoeing, the children’s playground by the river, tennis, mini golf and a whole lot more.
Something free to do… Take a bottle of champagne and a picnic down to one of the trestle tables by the river.
Best spot for an amazing panoramic view? Try the bell tower in the church, or take a stroll into the hills next to Le Puyferrat Chateau in St Astier.
Best things to do for families… Make the most of the new 84km bike path heading in both directions from St Astier. We can even arrange hire bikes to be delivered to your door.
Best things to do with a group of friends/adults? Visit the monolithic church in Auberterre, and then head to the top of town for an English cup of tea at Cup Cakes restaurant.
The best-kept secret? All the above, it’s no secret now that the word is out!
Best day tour activities? Castenau medieval chateau in the morning and pizza in the medieval fortified village that surrounds it, followed by a trip to Josephine Baker’s old home and chateau restyled in the 1930s. Have a drink in Dromme on the way back to St. Astier or a day trip to St. Emilion. Take the little train around the vineyards in the morning (kids love this too), have lunch in the square, try some wine tasting at one of the world’s most renowned chateaux and book a tour around one of the wonders of the world at the monolithic cathedral, which dates back to 700 BC.
What do you think first-time visitors will find most surprising about the area? What should they always pack with them?
People who come to St Astier for their holiday are amazed how one minute there is a busy market with bright colours, noise, livestock, the smell of cooking chickens on a spit and then the next minute you could hear a pin drop it’s so quiet. Based in the town most people can’t believe there is a giant hypermarket 2 minutes’ walk away that you’d never know was there, and two minutes’ walk in the other direction is the river, canoe hire, bike path, tennis, cafes and bars. Who needs a car? Pack your hat, suncream, swim things and trainers – everything is on foot!
What’s the one dish, activity, view or experience that really captures the essence of the region for you, and why?
Foie gras, walnuts, local French caviar, confit de canard and goat’s cheese. Canoeing down the river l’Isle past Neurvic Chateau. Looking down on St Astier from the hill above. The vibrant weekly market and taste testing the cheese, fig and wild boar saussisaur, giant olives and freshly made bread. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Even more curious about Dordogne?