France's Dordogne Region by Wheelchair
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
A peaceful rural retreat – accessible home-from-home gites surrounded by beautiful countryside, vineyards and small villages.
Disclaimer: My accommodation was provided on a complimentary basis for the purposes of this review. This is an honest review and my opinions, as always, are entirely my own. This review is entirely based on my personal experience of staying at the Domaine du Sourire, as a manual wheelchair user who is able to transfer, and is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to accessibility at the complex.
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When Jackie from Domaine du Sourire got in touch to tell me about the accessible gite complex in the South of France that she runs with her husband Terry, I knew I had to visit. After some deliberation over the travel arrangements (more on that below) flights were booked and it was official – Darren and I would celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary in beautiful Bordeaux.
Originally I thought we’d have our first ever European train adventure; the plan was to get trains from the Lake District to London, Eurostar from London to Paris, spend a couple of nights there, get the TGV to Angouleme, spend a few nights at Domaine du Sourire and then do the whole thing in reverse to get home. A couple of issues meant that this wasn’t possible – the first being the reluctance of Paris hotels to work with disabled bloggers, and the second being engineering works on the train line to London.
Instead we decided to try another first – hiring a car once we’d flown to Bordeaux Airport. We were both pretty nervous about this, as Darren had never driven outside of the UK, but honestly I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done travel-wise. We usually book a private transfer or a train, meaning that we’re working to pretty strict timings. The feeling of independence that came with simply collecting our car and getting out on the open road, with no need to rush and only ourselves to please, was amazing. We travelled with my manual chair and hired a standard Peugeot, with me transferring to the car and my wheelchair folding into the boot. For wheelchair accessible vehicle hire in France, it’s worth checking out the Handiscover website.
In terms of practicalities – flights from Liverpool to Bordeaux take just under two hours, and the drive from Bordeaux to Domaine du Sourire about the same.
We did have some issues with airport assistance and easyJet staff when returning from Bordeaux to the UK. I’ll be writing a separate post about this because it’s such an important issue – for the details you can read my Twitter thread about the experience.
Domaine du Sourire is an accessible gite complex in Champagne-et-Fontaine, the beautiful Dordogne region of South West France. There are four gites on the site, sleeping between five and eight people, three of which have ground floor bedrooms with en-suite wet room showers. Being rural the area is so peaceful, surrounded by countryside but within easy reach of nearby towns and villages.
The owners Jackie and Terry are so friendly, approachable and helpful – they live on the complex so are always on hand to answer queries or provide anything that their guests might need. They personally research local accessible attractions and restaurants, and are full of knowledge about the area, it’s history and traditions.
Jackie and Terry actually have a deep personal connection with Domaine du Sourire – Jackie’s father, Sandy, was an integral member of the team who first converted the site from a derelict farm into the gites we see today. The vision was always to be accessible and to welcome everyone.
On arrival we were welcomed with a beautiful home cooked pasta dish, as well as a welcome pack containing fresh bread, milk, butter, local wine and cheese.
We stayed in Le Papillon, an intimate two bed roomed, centrally heated gite with level access from the shaded central courtyard. The open plan kitchen, dining and lounge area is both bright and cosy, and equipped with everything you could need including breakfast bar, fridge freezer, microwave oven, washing machine and ironing facilities, wood burner, TV and DVD player.
The ground floor, accessible bedroom has a comfortable double bed and plenty of drawers for storage. An en-suite bathroom has the convenience of a wet room shower with grab bars and a shower seat.
From the bedroom there’s level access to the private enclosed patio with table, chairs, parasol and personal barbecue – arguably my favourite part of the accommodation! We spent each evening cooking local meats and vegetables on the barbecue, enjoying a glass (or several!) of Bordeaux wine and the serenity of the surrounding countryside. As it was early May the evenings were chilly, but in true Brit style of course we didn’t go inside… we re purposed the barbecue into our own personal fire pit.
We loved this daily ritual so much that as soon as we got home, we bought our own barbecue and chiminea.
Upstairs there’s a second family bedroom with a double bed and a single bed, and an en-suite with bath tub.
Things to do
Within the complex itself there are several different areas to explore and enjoy. The large swimming pool, accessed by a long ramp, can be heated in cooler weather and has a nearby accessible toilet with hoist available. The lawned garden has a wheelchair swing, perfectly placed to enjoy the gorgeous views, as well as a slide, sandpit, standard swings and a basketball net. A games room and a soft play area provide hours of fun for little ones, and for the ultimate relaxation experience there’s a sensory room with colourful lights, comfy bean bags and swinging chairs which hang from the ceiling.
Shops, bakeries and supermarkets are really easy to find, with the nearest large supermarket (Super U in Villebois) around 15 minutes drive from Domaine du Sourire. I’m a self-confessed food geek, and I loved buying all the local produce; fresh pastries, bread, cheese and wine (may have overindulged on those last two just slightly).
Places to visit
First on our list of places to visit was the small village of Champagne, as a wine lover I had to! So very peaceful and picturesque, the slow, steady pace of rural France makes you really appreciate such simple surroundings. I have to be honest and say that accessibility is fairly limited in Champagne, but there is an accessible toilet in the village library, available for anyone to use.
By far the prettiest place we discovered was Brantôme, a vibrant town with a rich history, and a popular place to take a walking tour. We enjoyed beer brewed at the Benedictine Abbey sat overlooking the river Dronne. Again, accessibility wasn’t perfect, with some cobbled streets and steep kerbs, but for me it was worth the effort for these picture postcard views.
Between the barbecues, the cheese and the boulangerie pastries we honestly didn’t feel the need to eat out, but on a recommendation from Jackie we did enjoy a beautiful meal at L’Envie Gourmande in Salles-Lavalette. Simple, typically French cuisine with no fuss and a lot of love. The setting was perfect, overlooking a vineyard and accessibility well thought out, with step-free access and an accessible toilet.
My first trip to France taught me so much about travel. It reinforced my belief that if you push yourself out of your comfort zone wonderful things can happen – we’ll definitely be hiring cars overseas more often – and it made me realise that a slower pace of life should be embraced and enjoyed. Travel shouldn’t be something that we endure just so we can get the best Instagram photos; it’s not necessary to have a whirlwind packed itinerary to really experience a place and get the most out of your trip. You don’t have to take a long-haul flight to broaden your horizons.
Sometimes the best trips are those where we truly switch off, slow down, relax and recharge. To be able to do that in accessible, authentic, attractive surroundings at Domaine du Sourire is a pleasure and a privilege.