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Travelling Light - exploring without a car

Travelling Light - exploring without a car

The long summer holidays are nearly upon us, and with them come visitors. Helen Millar suggests how they (and you) can enjoy the region independently without it costing an arm and a leg… 


This is for all you reluctant hosts. You’ve had his parents, your parents, every long-lost relative to stay. You’ve driven forever and now want to enjoy a quiet summer on your own. Then you get a call: long-lost friends are over from the States and they arrive tomorrow!

It was my Dordogne cousin who lumbered me with Doug and Mavis, due to his own apologetically sharp exit to (he said) the UK, and the cheery couple informed me that they wouldn’t be driving. Mavis had lost her licence, Doug didn’t drive in Europe and between them they had not a word of French. I had no choice but to try to make my visitors more independent with an itinerary of visits sans voiture.

At 8:45 the next morning I deposited the groggy pair on the forecourt of Angoulême station, where the bus for Périgueux was about to leave. This is a magic bus – even the locals don’t seem to know it exists. The Dordogne Tourist Board kindly runs year-round buses, at 2€ a trip, to all their neighbouring towns to entice shoppers to shop in their region. I was mildly perturbed when Doug turned and hissed that

Mavis didn’t do public transport, but the doors closed, the bus left and they were on it. After a one hour and forty minute ride, and no hassle with parking, they’d be free for six hours to explore the charming medieval alleyways and squares of Périgueux before getting the bus home. But inevitably, I spent my own day worrying that they’d suffer from culture shock. I was there to meet them as they emerged exhausted from the bus.

I shouldn’t have worried; they were ecstatic. As novices to public transport they felt like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World. The Périgueux Tourist Office is near the bus stop and, armed with maps, they’d visited all five Wednesday markets, dined on the romantic balcony of Papa Poule for 12€ (menu translation courtesy of the clientele), passed from medieval to 18th century architecture and back to Romanesque, all for the princely sum of eight euros in transport. Clambering into the car, Mavis extolled the delights of sitting up high above the scenery, said she was in love with Brantôme and, even if it turned into the school bus coming home, the enthusiasm of the adolescents matched their own sense of freedom and relaxed inebriation – no-one had had to watch their alcohol intake.

So, appetites whetted, I came up with further car-less adventures. Unlike daily trips we might need to do, don’t be afraid to include overnight stays – after all, your guests are tourists. Angoulême is a town blessed with an excellent rail service and connections to everywhere. Timetables are free, so arm yourself, because it’s not only the large town destinations which are of interest, it’s all the places in between. The TER’s are what we would have called stopping trains, and are usually cheaper than the TGVs. Check online for période bleue (off-peak) fares, which are cheaper. And make sure you’re fully-armed with the facts, prices and times before you buy your tickets – as tourists, don’t just get fobbed off with the most expensive route. SNCF ticket sales people used to work on a bonus for quantity sold, so had no real incentive to sell you a ticket for the most economical time and route. But they now react well to people who know their stuff and praise their trains! Many of the staff speak excellent English.

Doug and Mavis headed off for an overnight at Limoges (20€ return). They could have visited in a single day, but they wanted to stop off on the way home at La Rochefoucauld, to explore and have lunch. And of course, their absence made them perfect house guests.

A day in Saintes, then an afternoon at Cognac, ensured their further absence. Then I joined them for a group day out in Royan with bikes, all three destinations directly accessible by train. What better than to cycle along the front, stop for a seafood lunch, tumble back giggling onto the train to head for home? It gave us a huge sense of achievement, and rather than having to scale the steps at Angoulême station, we were directed across the rail lines by an admiring SNCF employee. But if you don’t fancy taking bikes on the train you can hire them on the seafront. The same is true of La Rochelle, one of the destinations which definitely requires a change of trains and an overnight stay. But again, with visitors it gives you a respite and them an excellent taste of yet another stunning town. Doug and Mavis took the plunge and returned tanned, tired and bearing a dressed crab supper for me.

Even though they declined canoeing at Jarnac (accessible by train), they were in search of new thrills. Obviously it’s unfair to send guests on journeys you haven’t tried and tested, so this time I went along too, but the trip could easily be done by independent visitors. This time I turned to an excellent guide – ‘Abbayes en France’ – and booked us in at modest cost (20€ each, including supper) to the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-de-Maumont (16190 Juignac) at Montmoreau. We took our bikes on the train for the single stop to Montmoreau, where we breakfasted, explored, then walked and pedalled the five kilometres up to the Abbey. If you go on foot, you can arrange to be picked up by the Abbey mini-bus. Open all year, the accommodation is of a high standard, with plain, mostly en-suite rooms (cosily heated when needed) and basic meals in a communal dining room.

We arrived puffed but happy on a picturesque promontory overlooking the secret valley, before swooping down along an ancient track to the Abbey. Doug was delighted to see nuns in the landscape, gardening. We encountered students revising, a large family taking advantage of the modest cost, and people on retreat. Visitors can take part in the religious services – or not, as they see fit. But as Mavis, a committed heathen said, there is something in the atmosphere which promotes a feeling of safety and wellbeing. She was entranced by Sister Anne Marie wielding a hand-bell to call the whole valley to a convivial supper. When we left, Mavis’s bike bag was full of produce from the Abbey shop, and hand printed good-sense homilies to guide us through life.

Bike 2863

We left early the next morning to cycle the undulating twenty-plus km to Chalais. It might sound long, but we biked on roads with gradients manageable for occasional cyclists, with easy ups and useful downs whose momentum always carried us to the peak of the next hill. We encountered very little traffic until the end of our journey. As Doug said, what you have to remember about bikes is that you can always walk and push for a while. Even if Lycra-clad clubs sweep past, it isn’t a race but a gentle exploration; the lower the speed, the more of France you see. At Chalais we had time to kill before the train, so enjoyed wonderful tapas on a shady riverside balcony chez La Bodega and dozed and read on the river bank, before returning to the Association Le Perroquet Vert Salon de Thé for delicious tea. Mavis bought perfect handmade dresses here for her nieces, before we caught the train home. As she observed, we weren’t commuters stressed by daily journeys but patient tourists, there were waits, but the time had been richly-filled and she was rapidly turning into an avid ‘people watcher’.

After a day to recover, the couple returned to Brantôme on the bus to explore, and indulge in a very leisurely top-notch lunch. In the meantime, I booked us into our next Abbey, l’Abbaye Notre Dame de Bonne Espérance (24410) at Echourgnac near Périgueux. We took the TER (direction Bordeaux) with our bikes and changed at Libourne – an easy change across the same platform – then continued to Montpon-Menesterol station, where we set out on two wheels to cover the modest distance to the Abbey. The day ended with a warm welcome and excellent en-suite rooms, though our hostess communicated with the minimum of words, for the sisters adhere to certain rules of silence.

It hadn’t previously occurred to me that in France orders of nuns require a resident priest within the establishment to celebrate mass, a fact Mavis felt went against her feminist beliefs. Here, this hugely outnumbered lone brother took charge of meals eaten with visitors. Doug and Mavis’s non-existent French meant that the mealtime prayer urging us to be abstemious, and not eat more than we needed, passed them by (but fortunately so did the disapproving glare of our host as they peeled and squelched their way through their dessert oranges). Afterwards Doug put his grumpiness down to being so heavily outnumbered. But any disapproval was soon dispelled by his complimenting the sisters on their delightful chapel and gardens, while Mavis – by now taken with the many strengths of convent life – bought umpteen copies of a stunningly-modern batik of the Virgin and Child in the entrance to the Abbey. She was sure this was the most no-nonsense Mary she’d ever seen, and all her friends in the States would receive a copy.

Doug would have liked to plan rail visits further afield, but alas their stay came to an end, and they’d promised to meet my cousin in Bergerac. We could have taken the train, but imagine our delight to find that we could return to Périgueux on the bus and pick up another to head on to Bergerac for the total sum of 4€! This was less than the price of parking the people-carrier which was there to meet us – a detail which Mavis gleefully imparted to my suspiciously tanned relative. It had obviously been tropical in London?! It didn’t matter that he’d palmed his guests off on me; Doug and Mavis had had a life-changing trip and I’d really warmed to them. As I waved goodbye they looked strangely trapped behind the chrome and glass of the enormous car. They also mouthed something – I think it was ‘see you next year’ – so I gave them the thumbs up, because I know they’ll find plenty to do under their own steam. Perfect guests.


Helen Millar presents AngloFile, the English-language radio slot for RCF Accords ( in the UK, under the name of Rosemary Mason. She was one of the original writers for EastEnders.





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