07/16/2012 08:16 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

In The French Countryside, Serendipity Often Makes The Day

I suspect many people equate travel with a journey someplace to see something specific. Those places often are crowded. And pushing through crowds -- in the Louvre, for example, to snap a picture of the Mona Lisa -- isn't really a terribly enjoyable thing to do. So some people I know shy away from travel altogether.

In the end, Kathy and I love France more for the experience of being here rather than the desire to see any of its specific sights. Often, our best moments simply happen; they're unplanned. This week, returning from the lovely town of Brantome, we overshot our turn (yet again).

Looking for a way to turn around, she spotted a farm selling fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the barn. We got back on track, but not before we bought fresh lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and a regional dessert. The farmer's wife threw in some fresh basil to spice up the evening salad, and we exchanged a few pleasantries in French. Voila.

"That was serendipitous," said Kathy, who approaches each day as something of a battle of woman (read map reader) versus technology (which makes reading maps unnecessary). "When you use a GPS, there is no serendipity."

She paused: "That's why we like France. We like surprises, and many people don't like to be surprised."

Perhaps she's right. The "surprises" of travel aren't always pleasant, mind you. We were surprised to find ourselves in a five-hour traffic jam around Paris after our plane landed. And as we drove toward the Dordogne region, where we've spent the last week, Kathy wandered into some stinging nettle, which did just that (stung) for about 24 hours. But then, especially in the countryside, there's the next bend in the road, which may bring a a pastoral view of a meadow, dotted with round hay bales, or of fields of sunflowers, straining toward the light. Or perhaps a castle ruin, the remains of lost history from hundreds of years ago. All those are serendipity.

At lunch today, we headed off toward a restaurant recommended by our landlords only to find it shuttered. Kathy folded out her map and we headed toward another village, eight miles away that the cottage instruction's said is "generally always open and serves good country cuisine for a reasonable price."

That was an understatement. We got much more than we bargained for -- and at absolutely bargain rates. La Cremalliere in Anlhiac served up delicious food -- five courses, wine included, for $16 per person -- in a village so tiny it felt almost out of a children's tale. Our five-minute stroll after lunch turned up a one-room school; a church; a public telephone; a mailbox; no stores; a couple dozen houses, mostly stone with slate roofs; and one charming little restaurant with its wine rack beside the fireplace, colorful fresh hollyhock scattered about and alternating green and purple napkins in each wine glass.


On this, our first visit to this region, where, in what's known as the Perigord Vert the largest town is still smaller than 3,500 people, there's much we've missed. The area is crisscrossed with hiking trails we haven't walked on and rivers fit for kayaking and canoeing. We've spent much of our time motoring to chateaus such as Hautefort and towns such as Brantome, Sarlat and Domme for which the Dordogne is best known. Nor have we yet visited the caves with drawings dating back to pre-historic man.

But we have reveled in daily is the area's tranquility and natural beauty. This is a land of rolling hills and high ridges, green fields and small farms, forests and -- everywhere -- flowers. It's Vermont in the late '60s before hippies and city folk migrated and gentrified things a bit. Only the people here speak French; live alongside history in stunning stone and sometimes Tudor-style houses; and serve food soaked in sauces of cream, garlic, mushrooms and the herbs of the country.

As refreshing as the food itself are the locals who cook it and interact with tourists in shops and stores. Unlike sometimes snobby Parisians, they seem patient with our struggles in French and appreciative rather than dismissive of our efforts to speak their language.

The skies have stayed gray much of our time here, but perhaps because of this cool, sometimes damp climate, the vegetation is rich and the landscape a lush green. We'll return here to hike more of the trails and meander down the many rivers. In the meantime, I hope, it remains largely undisturbed and unpretentious, a country place with a French, country pace.