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A Great French Mix
Toulouse, Armagnac, La Rochelle, Guerande, Amboise

Story and photos by Les Furnanz   February 1, 2012

  Our guide, René, poled strongly as we explored channels of the great marsh, Grande Briere. We had embarked at his island homestead on Ile de Fedrun.

"My family has lived here for over 400 years!" he said in his local French dialect. All the families share the marsh's wildlife, the fish and wild fowls. But each family brands the webbed feet of its own geese and ducks, he said, pointing at a nearby barnyard flock.
  Guide Rene  
Réné poling on Grande Briere
  We rounded a bend and were puzzled by a man-made construction of tall reeds. "It's one of our community hunting blinds. We learn from boyhood to be very patient when we hunt!" he exclaimed and poled into the structure to give us the hunter's feel.

Our poling tour of Grande Briere passed too quickly as Rene explained the intricacies of living in this unique environment. As we debarked at his small farm he proudly showed us his abode with its thatched roof. All the island homes are thatched using marsh reeds. It has been like this from the beginning. The French government even provides tax breaks to maintain our unique lifestyle, our heritage!

  Hunting blind   Farm  
Grande Briere marsh hunting blind
Farm and thatched roof home, Ile de Fedrun

Incredible Tour

Grand Briere marsh is near the medieval walled town of Guerande, one of many incredible stay-over locations on our western semi-circle trip from Toulouse to Amboise, France. Our plan was to fly into Toulouse's international airport, relax and enjoy the city for a couple of days, then take a leisurely auto tour, stopping for a week in Armagnac and three days each in La Rochelle, Guerande, and Amboise. The auto provided for convenient exploring. The tour exceeded our expectations with unique sites and friendly villages and towns that foreign tourists rarely experience. It was an easy train ride from Amboise back to Paris for our return. Come join us.


France's fourth largest city is called ville rose for the warmth of its ancient brick construction. Its old-quarter lanes and squares invited exploration. We started at Basilica St. Sernin, constructed in the 12th century with a distinctive Romanesque style. Our next stop was Place du Capitole, bustling with open-air cafes, street vendors, and the beautiful capital building. Nearby Place Wilson' s fountain and merry-go-round attracted many families. Other highlights included renowned 16th-century Pont Neuf Bridge spanning the Garonne River and the splendid Renaissance estate home, Hotel d'Assezat. After a full day of Toulouse's sites, we enjoyed incredible local cuisine with lamb cutlets at the comfortable restaurant L'Envers du Décor.

  Toulouse Place Capitole   Place Wilson  
Place du Capitole, Toulouse
Place Wilson fountain, Toulouse


Our next stop was a week-long rental of a 200-year-old house with pool (only 400 Euros!) in the Armagnac-Tenareze (Gers) region northwest of Toulouse. The home was outside the walls of Larressingle, France's smallest fortified village with fifty residents. The walls, beautifully illuminated at night, extend above neighboring vineyards and sunflowers. It was the perfect base for explorations. Relaxing days included short drives to explore medieval villages along pilgrim route St. Jacques de Compostelle and enjoyable countryside walks. A list of highlights demonstrates the region's allure:

  Larressingle Walls and Gate   Sunflower Field  
Larressingle's fortress walls and gate
Sunflower field
  The nearby village of Fources is an original "bastide" with circular treed center surrounded by half-timbered, arcaded homes. It presents s an enjoyable open-air market and café scene. Condom takes pride in winding narrow old-quarter streets, a Gothic 16th-century cathedral, and Three Musketeers history. Lectoure hosts a large main-street market with stands of flowers, crafts, fruits, vegetables and regional specialties. La Romieu is proud site of 14th-century Collégiale St. Pierre with a strikingly beautiful cloister and large towers.   
  Lectore street market scene   La Romieu cloister  
Lectoure's street market - butcher stand
La Romieu's Collegial St. Pierre cloister
  Nérac provides a range of charms with its Henry IV chateau, stone bridge over the Baise River, and old-quarter streets winding uphill on either side. Roman history is well displayed at the gallo-romaine 4th-century villa of Seviac with beautifully preserved mosaic floors and walks. A great 30-km. circle tour from Larressingle includes famed Flaran Abbey (1150 A.D.) with simple architecture and prized art collection, Valence-sur-Baise with its beautiful square and great lunch-stop restaurant, and Cassaigne with its Armagnac distillery, worth the tour and great tastings. Another major highlight is 13th-century Labastide d'Armagnac in the neighboring region of Landes. The village is perfectly proportioned with a large medieval square, beautiful church, friendly merchants and great restaurants. Nearby is Notre Dame des Cyclistes, a small 12th-century Gothic chapel, now a Tour de France museum with many remnants, including a Lance Armstrong winner's jersey.  
  Armagnac cellar  
Armagnac distillery cellar at Cassaigne

La Rochelle

The 1000-year-old Atlantic port of La Rochelle merited a three-night visit. The Old Port entrance is unforgettable with ancient towers and vistas into the old town. We climbed the multitude of steps to Saint-Nicolas Tower (1372 A.D.) for lookout views of the harbor and ancient city. We passed through the clocktower gate into the pedestrian-only streets of the old town to the ancient church St. Saveur (12th-century), the city hall castle, the cathedral, and Orbigny Bernon museum with varied historical collections in a Renaissance estate. Nearby Charruyer Park provided a pleasant stroll on the town outskirts back to Old Port with its great restaurants and cafes.

We took a day to enjoy the island of Ile de Re, connected by a convenient bridge from La Rochelle. A 30-km. tour on rented bicycles from La Flotte village circled along the sea and through interior farms and pine forests. The highlight was the harbor and fortified village of St. Martin. It made for a pleasant lunch stop. We next drove to the eastern end of the island, past harvested salt marsh fields, to visit Ars village with narrow pedestrian streets lined with white facaded homes.
  St. Nicholas Tower   Old Port gate  
St. Nicholas Tower, La Rochelle
La Rochelle Old Port and city gate with clock tower
La Flotte scene
Ars Church Tower
Cyclist in Ars
Cafe scene at La Flotte
Ars church spire
Ars resident cyclist


In sourthern Brittany, near the mouth of the Loire, Guerande is fully enclosed by 1,300-meter-circumference 15th-century fortifications. The walls are testimony to Brittany's medieval dukes' preservation of their lands from foreign rule. Four gates provide access, including the largest, Porte Saint Michel, with twin towers that housed the guard unit. Narrow, winding streets invite visitors to major sites including Collegiale St. Aubin and the oldest structure, Chapelle Notre Dame (1100s).

We stayed three wonderful days at a B&B near the ancient city. Each evening we dined at an excellent Guerande creperie with the cuisine for which Brittany is renowned. One day we drove to nearby Ile de Fedrun on Grande Briere marsh to meet guide René and explore his home waters. The old village of Kerhinet also displayed beautiful examples of the region's thatched homes. On another day we rented bicycles in nearby La Baule on the Atlantic coast and toured past salt-water marshes, prized for France's best table salt, and the charming villages of Piriac-sur-Mer, Le Croisic, and Batz-sur-Mer. Guerande, its surrounding fresh and salt-water marshes, and its nearby Atlantic villages will remain forever on our list of France's prized regions.

  Guerande walls   Guerande tourist  
Guerande's Porte Saint Michel at night
Happy tourist in Guerande old town


The last stay of our tour was equally unique and relaxing. From a convenient B&B in a historic estate of Bléré village we enjoyed three major Loire Valley sites: Amboise, Chenonceau, and Loches. The first day we enjoyed Amboise's charms of cafes and shops looking up to the Renaissance castle on the hill. A highlight was our tour of Clos de Luce, Leonardo da Vinci's home for the last three years of his life. This chateau felt warm, full of Leonardo's presence with great displays of art and inventions, surrounded by an enjoyable garden park. On another day we rented bicycles in Bléré and toured to the the Loire Valley's most renowned chateau, Chenonceau. Its incredible history of Renaissance-era French kings and queens warranted a half-day visit. Most interesting was the devious history of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. On our last day we drove to nearby Loches and discovered the medieval remains of a 10th-century dungeon with history back to Richard the Lionhearted and a castle with history that includes Joan of Arc and Charles VII.

  Chenonceau & Cher River   Clos de Luce garden  
Chenonceau Chateau over the Cher River
Garden Scene at Clos de Luce
Amboise Gate  
Amboise town gate & clock

- Click here for a three minute video tour: A Great French Mix.

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