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Dordogne, France

Serenity Is the Order of the Day
The Scenic Southwest


The choice to visit Ribérac (about 40 kilometers from Brantôme) for your second day is not due to its beautiful, round-domed Romanesque churches. What makes this market town unique is that it's one of the last examples of what villages used to be like.

Hotel de France
Hôtel de France

Another reason is to experience the Hôtel de France. Located on the town square, which—like Brantôme—turns into a madhouse on market day, it's family run and is a perfect example of what a provincial hotel should be; to whit: creaky wooden floors, massive mahogany armoires, no mini-bars replenished on the hour, and reasonable prices. Dine in the restaurant, which is formal with 18th century toile hunting scenes and china fit for The Ritz. Owner Stéphane Jauvin's mother prepares the delicious signature duck confit encased in a crisp, lighter-than-tempura crust. If you're lucky, the chef will have picked "cèpes" (wild mushrooms) that morning and sautéed them in goose fat. The locals claim that goose fat guarantees longevity.

Visit the Monolithic Church at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. Through a circuitous route that only the hotel host, Stéphane, will happily sketch out, you'll pass through the Double forest. This is an area dotted with isolated villages, huge felled trees, and sequestered little lakes which seem to be hiding from tourists.

Beneath St. Jean Church
Beneath St. Jean Church

Aubeterre will delight you. The village is travel poster fodder with its maze of squares and dead ends dotted with outdoor restaurants, crêpe emporiums, and gourmet bake shops. It's fun to lunch or picnic in the main square as you wait to visit St. Jean Church (a.k.a. Monolithic Church). Like many places in France, it's closed for a two-hour lunch.

Awe-inspiring is the superlative that describes the entry into St. Jean. The underground church was miraculously dug out of a limestone outcrop by Benedictines in the 12th century. The monks continued their 800 years of hewing and digging until they created a cathedral with a roof as high as Notre Dame. The guide will lead you to the tombs, the baptismal area and the crypt. The crypt, bones and all, was discovered in 1961 when a wide-load truck plunged through the road above.

During the tour, the guide will ask you to imagine François I, King of France, who stopped here in 1526; John Calvin, who paid his respects in 1534; the religious wars when the Huguenots devastated most of Aubeterre in 1562 and razed every church around (except this one); and the Revolution of 1789, when the church was used for manufacturing gunpowder. Finally, peer through the melancholy darkness and imagine those first, simple Christians, steeped in faith, being plunged into the baptismal font standing before you; then at their death, being interred a few feet away. Being presented with the whole circle of life in these surroundings is more memorable than any historical event you could imagine.

Continue to Day 3


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(Updated: 06/02/08 MG)

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