A flurry of scarlet geraniums on a balcony of pale blue, ancient stone walls hugging the steeply descending banks that reflect in the shimmering waters of the Dordogne...
The first glimpse of our chambre d’hote in the pretty old barge port of Argentat comes as we descend the curve of le Pont de la Republique over the picture postcard quayside. And it’s love.
So it was, too, for Esmerelda and Philippe Boursillon, French military officials who had travelled the world before looking for the place to make a new life.
They saw the very same view in a photograph on the internet and to the customs house built in 1701 they came; not for the night, like us, but as owners.
They knocked through into the cottages next door, one the town’s original brothel, to create a home that is as sympathetic as it is stunning – and repainted those blue shutters and balconies.
Now from April to October, it’s a chambre d’hote with three beautiful bedrooms.
As we cycle along the banks of the Dordogne, through hamlets higgledy-piggledy with cottages topped with tiled roofs shaped like bonnets from a Jane Austen period drama, it’s easy to see why the Borsillons stayed in Argentat.
It’s simply blissful; caramel-coloured cattle, the famous Limousin breed, graze in sun-drenched fields of green. Shady groves of walnut trees are almost ready to release treasures which will be sold worldwide in time for Christmas. Tiny, fairytale turrets pop up as the deserted lanes we cycle along make turn after turn.
Down by the river, we spread out a lunchtime picnic Esmerelda has prepared. The wicker basket is filled with Limousin delights; foie gras pate, fresh bread, local cheeses and meats.
We are driving through the heart of the Correze, the southern tip of the Limousin, one of the most sparsely-populated areas of France. The roads are empty and twisting, the type that make you grin with joie de vivre as you motor from one incredibly pretty village to the next to find Romanesque churches, ancient abbeys, medieval architecture and tiny restaurants serving fabulous food without a single tourist menu.
It’s unspoilt, peaceful, beautiful. On Day One, in Argentat, we reckon it surely cannot get any better.
Only, the next day, it does.
We drive 20 miles to the little medieval town of Beaulieu-Sur-Dordogne, nicknamed the Limousin Riviera after the sweeping curve of tranquil, glass-like river that meanders around it.
It wasn’t always so; centuries ago it was a succession of rapids. On an hour-long boat trip, we learned about the gabariers, the locals who twice a year took their flat-bottomed boats laden with wood from their forests down the Dordogne to the wine-makers, a slow and dangerous journey that inevitably had to end in boats being sold and men making a two-week walk home.
As the evening sun sets the water alight, wander through narrow streets and passageways lined with ancient timber-framed buildings, possibly the quaintest youth hostel you will ever find (it’s 15th Century) and ruins of the old abbey to eat at the restaurant Les Charmilles. Order fois gras and confit de canard, specialities of the Correze, as are ceps and truffles, Limousin beef and the town’s most famous produce – strawberries.
The region is truly a gastronomer’s delight, though don’t go looking for local wine – the disease phylloxera wiped out the vineyards long ago.
Our next stop, Collonges-La-Rouges, once made wine so fine it was sold at court. Now it is famed as a gloriously pretty tourist destination. A medieval jewel built entirely in red sandstone, it is officially a Plus Beaux Villages de France and has a restored 16th century corn market, an 11th century church and a tiny museum in a 16th century house romantically named the Maison de la Sirene.
Our overnight stay is the Jeanne maison d’hotes, another lovely, privately-owned old home which takes in paying guests, and owned by Brigitte and Pascal Monteil. Our delightful room, furnished with antiques, is off a staircase set into the house’s 16th century tower. The bed is set into a vast stone fireplace.
After apéritifs on the terrace, we take our seats at the family’s candle-lit dining table and Brigitte and Pascal give us an unforgettable evening over-flowing with fine wine, delicious home-cooked food and conversation. Despite the language barriers, we all join in head for bed feeling we have learned so much more about the culture and the charm of the Limousin than had we been staying in a faceless hotel.
French guest houses are reasonably priced, usually provide a good dinner with drinks for 25-35 euros a head and their owners, for whom nothing seems too much trouble, are as charming as they are informative.
Plus you are left with no choice but to use your schoolgirl French.