On to France
At this point in our journey, it was time to say “adios” to Spain and “bonjour” to France. So after a long, relaxing week in San Sebastián, we set out for our favorite French château. It turned out to be such a relaxing portion of our trip and certainly the last time we would ever undertake such a long vacation, that we completely left the blog behind in favor of being present in the moment. But now that we are finally home and almost entirely recovered, it’s time to begin to tell the rest of the story.
Every once in a great while when you are traveling, you encounter a place you could visit time and time again with equal or more delight. The Château de Courtebotte is one of those rare places. This is where we began our aborted 2016 trip so it was important that we return and do it right. Located in the tiny community of Saint-Jean-de-Blaignac on the bank of the Dordogne River at a bend that provides a spectacular view, this 17th century Château was purchased by its current owners about 10 years ago and renovated in a unique manner. While still maintaining important period features, they have redone the interior of the house with utmost attention to detail and elegance. There are modern touches and finishings everywhere making it the most inviting and comfortable historical building we have ever experienced.
There are five luxurious bed-and-breakfast type rooms located upstairs in the Château itself as well as several self-catering suites and gîtes on the property. Our favorite accommodation is the air-conditioned Suite Ô with a kitchenette and its own very lovely, private patio where Norman has spent much time drawing and painting in addition to serving up some delicious meals. We also experienced a few days in the double room Suite Capri — no kitchen but lots of comfort.
The entire Château is yours to enjoy no matter where you stay from formal living room and entertainment room to a billiards room where we brushed up on our pool skills. It would be the perfect setting for a live game of Clue.
Outside in the spacious well-manicured grounds there is something for everyone — large swimming pool, saunas, trampoline, ping pong, swings, and playhouse for the kids.
A strikingly beautiful place such as this would be nothing without superior hospitality to match and that is exactly what you find at Courtebotte. Isabelle, your French host (whose English is fortunately way better than my French), makes sure you well taken care of. For an extra charge, she offers breakfast daily. This is no ordinary breakfast. It starts off with the best French tea, chocolate, and coffee accompanied by traditional freshly baked and delivered croissants and mini baguettes. Isabelle and her staff then prepare a dazzling array of small plates including homemade yogurt, granola, and jams, fresh fruit, juice, cheeses, tarts plus eggs made-to-order. Every morning we vowed to eat less but never succeeded in convincing Isabelle of this fact so the plates kept coming and we kept eating. It was impossible to turn down such a tasty breakfast feast.
There is also an opportunity to enjoy a gourmet dinner twice a week which consists of at least four courses with wine pairing. For this, all guests are seated at one long table turning dinner into a 3-4 hour event with much lively international conversation. We have had French, British, Dutch, German, Canadian, and Australian dinner companions on various occasions. Getting to know people from different parts of the world is definitely one of the best aspects of our travels. When we really hit if off, we even exchange open invitations to visit each other in our respective countries. That is a really exciting proposition.
Aside from simply relaxing and enjoying this unique environment, there is plenty to do just a short distance from the Château which is situated in one of the most famous wine regions in the world. The city of Bordeaux lies one hour west where you will find a new wine museum, river cruises, and the fascinating Miroir d’Eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool.
A short 15-minute drive will take you to Saint Emilion. This is a cute, touristy little town offering distinct local wines from endless shops that line the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets. We visited in 2012 and again in 2015. This time we popped in for a quick revisit and tried out the Café Saigon for some Vietnamese fare, a pleasant change from all the rich French cuisine.
Dotted around the entire surrounding area are innumerable wineries such as the Château de Bonhoste whose wines are featured at Courtebotte. Accompanied by the winery’s adorable mascot, Gabby, we were given an outstanding tour and tasting on this visit resulting in the purchase of more than a few bottles of wine — reds, whites, rosés, and our favorite, the sparkling Crèment. While purchasing wine on a menu at a restaurant in France can be quite expensive, buying directly from a winery is extremely affordable. All our bottles ranged from $7-10 and were far superior to anything we would buy for that price in the US. By comparison, wines featured at American wineries typically run from $25-45 per bottle. At a French grocery store, $3-5 will yield excellent wines as well.
Since we spent much time in Spain on this trip, we have been particularly interested in saffron. We discovered a small winery nearby with a side crop of French saffron where the 5th generation owner gave us a pleasant tour and explanation of saffron cultivation. We learned that when you are using the “real deal” (authentic saffron), you need only use a few threads which differs greatly from the amount Norman has typically used when preparing paella. Of course, we purchased some to bring home and it will be interesting to see if less is truly more. We also bought some intriguing saffron-infused products which we had to consume during our travels: honey, orange jam, mustard, and syrup which can be added to water or sparkling wines. The saffron honey was our favorite and we had to make sure to eat all of it before we left. At home, we get high quality honey from a small local farm and are going to try to make our own saffron infusion.
We were fortunate to be able to visit the Château twice on this trip — once on the way into France headed to the Dordogne and again on the way out before returning our car to Bordeaux and taking the TGV train to Paris. If there were only one reason to return to France, the Château de Courtebotte would be it.