On the sixth episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, Dolly Parton joins us to talk about hotels, her beloved Smoky Mountains, and why travel is the best form of education.
French cheesemonger: You know, we often have some, some dinner with just cheese and wine and salad. So nice. A little piece of cheese and a bit of wine and then you say, “Ah, but I still have some cheese so I’m going to have [more] wine.” And then you’re drunk.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.
This week, I’m telling my own travel tale, after four years of hosting the show. Since I think it would be weird to interview myself, I’ll just share a few things. I have worked at AFAR for almost 10 years. I started as an editor with the magazine, but then about five or six years ago, we launched Travel Tales as a live event series. Right before the pandemic, we decided to turn it into a podcast—and thank goodness we did! And over the course of all those years, I’ve had incredible opportunities to travel. I’ve hung out with penguins in Antarctica, I’ve parasailed in the Maldives, hiked in Patagonia. And through it all, food has been a constant—even in Antarctica.
Like many people, I believe that food is one of the best ways to get to know a place. Through it you can see what a culture cherishes, the rituals and ingredients and dishes that they hold sacred. As you’ll hear shortly, I first fell in love with this concept while living in France. I was doing a study abroad program in Rennes, a city in the Brittany region of France. And that experience just opened my eyes to the simple pleasures of really good ingredients. I remember eating wild strawberries and freshly shucked oysters in Cancale. I devoured buckwheat crepes and kouign-
amann pastries (this was years before they became big in the States). And I reveled in the long Saturday lunches I’d have with my host family, filled with wine and cheese and always capped with tiny espressos.
Recently, I was able to return to France, once again to eat. This time on a trail, designed specifically for that purpose.
Aislyn: I am 328 feet beneath the surface of the Earth. Specifically, a piece of the earth that belongs to Ardèche, France. It’s dark and damp and it kinda smells like the sidewalk after a spring rain: You know, kind of minerally and rich?
I shuffle along the cave floor. I have no idea where I’m going, but I pass these stalactites that are hanging down like earthen icicles and stalagmites that are stretching up as if trying to meet them. I can’t see anything but what’s illuminated by the light attached to my helmet. Honestly, it’s a little unnerving. I’m not scared exactly, but I am wondering what I’m doing in this cave. And then I hear:
Jézabel Janvre: We’ll taste two wines coming from the surface and two other wines coming from the cave. And we do the SpéléŒnologie to show you the power of winetasting in a cave.
Aislyn: Welcome to the Vallée de la Gastronomie.
OK, OK, let’s back up a little.
It feels a little cliché now, like, it’s so Emily in Paris but: I’ve loved France since I was seven and my aunt gave me a poster of the Seine at night. It was the first image that made me think of other places, of other people, of other lives. And it filled me with wonder. I actually can trace a direct line between that poster and what I do now. Many years later, when I was in my mid-20s, I lived in the Brittany region in northwest France for nearly a year. And that solidified my love for the country—and for its food.
As you can imagine, living there was pretty dreamy. I was astounded and inspired by the French passion for food and wine. This hyperlocal focus is part of their national pride. I mean, families spend generations handing down the legacy of cheese, or baguettes, or oysters, or wine. It was the first time I learned to make the connection between the food going into my mouth and the place it came from.
When I moved back home, I started working more with food. I got a job at a wine bar. I learned to bake and cook. And I even started writing about food and wine. But that was more than a decade ago. And those threads that tied me to France had started to fray. My French fluency had faded. And while food was still a big part of my life, last year, I’d been feeling less and less connected with where it comes from. I found myself in Safeway more than at the farmers’ market. Even though I live in northern California, which is no slouch in the cool local food department.
And then I learned about the new Vallée de la Gastronomy, a 400-mile trail designed to help travelers explore the gastronomic regions of France. They were hosting a media tour to help journalists understand the trail, and naturally, I jumped at the chance to go.
The first thing I thought when I read about the trail was, “Oh my god, there are way too many amazing things to do.” You can take cooking classes and meet with olive oil makers, go on fishing excursions, and tour chocolate factories. It would take you a year to do it all. Fortunately, I didn’t really have to decide what to do because the people who manage the trail had planned our trip for us. And it’s not just eating. You get to meet people who actually craft the fancy foods we like to eat, the people who make the food and that France is so rightly associated with. People like Nicolas, a joyful truffle hunter with a Clark Gable–style mustache and one of the first people I meet on the trail.
From the moment we walk in, it’s clear that Nicolas a) loves truffles and b) is one of those fascinating people with a crazy amount of specific knowledge on a very obscure topic. These are my favorite kind of people, by the way. As Nicolas preps his truffle gear, my fellow journalists and I immediately start to ooh and ahh because we are in truffle Disneyland. There’s truffle pasta, and truffle mustard, and even truffle ice cream. I’m still sad I didn’t get to try the ice cream.
But then we are distracted by the world’s cutest truffle hunter. No, it’s not Nicolas. But Taiga, a nine-month-old puppy. She bounds up, full of energy. Honestly, she seems way too bouncy to dig up what is arguably the world’s most precious mushroom. Nicolas promises that we’ll get to watch her do her thing, but first, he’s going to drop some knowledge.
Like the fact that truffles begin as spores. And Nicolas has an appropriately French way to explain it.
Nicolas, truffle hunter: The spores, they will be in the mud, in the ground, and they will wait, and what are they waiting for? They are waiting for the big love of their life, like everybody, and what is the big love of their life? This is the root of a tree. And when they meet these roots, what happens? Well, they get married and have lots of truffles.
Aislyn: So yes, truffles are the love child of tree roots and spores. Nicolas has lots more to say. Like the fact that all of their truffles come from within 125 miles of where we’re standing. And that in just a few minutes we’re going to be hunting for summer truffles, which are his favorite of all the truffles. As he talks, I realize that finding truffles is practically an act of magic. He tells us that animals are the only ones who can smell truffles, way way way down in their tree root love nests. And by law in France, you can only use two kinds of animals to find them: dogs and pigs. Nicolas says he doesn’t want to share his bed with a pig, so he uses a special kind of dog.
Nicolas: And this breed, uh, is called, ta ta ta, Lagotto Romagnolo.
Aislyn: If you couldn’t tell by his over-the-top Italian accent, Lagotto Romagnolos are Italian dogs that have an incredible sense of smell. This means that it’s finally Taiga’s time to shine. So we all troop out to the large, wooded backyard, where sunlight is filtering through the trees and birds are chirping. It’s so idyllic. We can tell this is Taiga’s moment because: You know that old Looney Tunes cartoon where Pepe Le Pew is bouncing through the grass? That’s what she looks like. But suddenly she makes a beeline for a spot near one of the trees and starts frantically pawing at the earth.
Nicolas squats down. He pushes Taiga aside and starts digging where she’d been digging. Taiga is very annoyed by this, but eventually flops on the ground as Nicolas uses what looks like a very scary dental tool to carefully scrape around a truffle about the size of a small apple. A few minutes later, he pulls it out of the ground and holds it up with this big grin. It’s such a funny moment. Because he’s just holding up a dirt-covered object that looks like nothing and had required a dog to find. And yet, this truffle can be sold for more than $300 a pound.
It’s exactly the kind of experience I’d been hoping for, a reminder that we are so much closer to the things that we eat than we think. And it’s a reminder that for people like Nicolas, it takes years to build the expertise that allows him to do his job so well.
I feel that same sense of appreciation later that day, not far down the trail from our truffle harvest. We’re standing in a field near Charolles, France, watching cows eat grass. But these aren’t just any cows. They’re Charolais cows, and I’ve never seen so much bovine personality. They have these little tufts of hair on the top of their heads that give them kind of a punk look. And beautiful white fur, the color of brie. And these kind of half curious, half “what are you looking at” expressions.
We’re staying at Maison Doucet, a five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel. And the hotel has a one-Michelin-star restaurant that is known for its impressive, and extensive, beef tasting menu. Yes, that means as I’m standing in this field, I’m looking at someone’s future dinner. A dinner that will be prepared by chef Frédéric Doucet. He grew up in the hotel and now owns it—and runs the restaurant. And Frédéric does take a humane approach to his cattle raising. The cattle are moved from field to field so that they are used to moving and won’t get scared when it’s time to end their lives. As a former vegetarian, it’s a little hard to grapple with. But the cows eat really well and live good lives in the sun. And isn’t there some beauty in wanting to mitigate their discomfort?
As we eat beef tartlets and tendon soup later that evening, it reminds me, again, of how close to the land people here live. Why shouldn’t we see the fruits, vegetables, and animals we’ll be eating before they get to our plate? In the United States, I find that it’s so easy to be disconnected from the process. Meat is wrapped and divorced from its origins. Lettuce is wrapped and bagged, fruit is precut. Not that France is immune to that, but in these small regions, it feels like those connections have remained strong.
Speaking of connections, Lyon has literal connections to its past. It’s known as the capital of gastronomy in France, and it’s almost the midpoint along the, the trail. After last night’s lengthy and decadent meal at Maison Doucet, I’m so glad we’re on a food tour that is also a walking tour this morning.
We’re starting in the oldest part of the city, known as Vieux Lyon. This is where France’s silk industry began, way back in the 16th century. And there’s a surprising link between silk workers and food. But first those connections I mentioned. Lyon is divided by two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. And in Vieux Lyon, streets run parallel to the Saône River, making it hard to access. So way back in the day, locals developed a series of covered passages that lead straight to the Saône. They’re called traboules and it’s really cool to kind of wander around the city and try to find them. And silk workers used them a ton to carry stuff around. Which I imagine probably made them really hungry. Because those very silk workers also invented the city’s most notable culinary institution: The bouchon. Our tour guide, Yann, tells us how to find one of these iconic restaurants.
Yann, tour guide: If you want to know if the restaurant is a good one, you have to look for something. When you see the, this label with the drunk puppet, with the red nose, if ever you see the drunk puppet, it means this is a real famous Boucheron restaurant, made by the city of Lyon, OK? They want to check each year if it’s done the old way, the good way, with good recipes, and good, good vibes also.
Aislyn: The vibes are strong at our first bouchon. We’re at a restaurant called Les Fine Gueules and right next to the front door, I see a sign. On the sign, there’s this painting of a clown face with a bright red nose. Our drunk puppet! The inside of the restaurant is movie ready. There are red-checkered placemats on the table, and a handwritten chalkboard on the stone walls.
We sit down and Yann orders for us: oeufs mourette, which are poached eggs served in a rich wine sauce. And they are fast becoming one of my favorite foods here. We get lots of dried sausage, another Lyon specialty. And we get a creamy seasoned cheese dip called la cervelle de canuts, which loosely translates to “silk worker’s brain.” Fortunately for me, it tastes nothing like brain. Back in the 19th century, brain was a huge delicacy. The average silk worker, however, couldn’t afford it. So they created a version out of ingredients they could afford: faiselle cheese flavored with chives, shallots, parsley, and oil. To me, it feels very French to find a way to create such a delicacy out of such humble materials. And it tastes divine.
The next day, we return to the Earth. Or rather, to a cave beneath the earth. You know that cave I mentioned at the top of the episode? It’s called La Grotte Saint-Marcel. And we’re here because some genius came up with SpéléŒnologie, a mash up between winetasting and spelunking. What a combination. We pull on these long-sleeved green suits and helmets with lights on them—I have never felt more like a Ghostbuster.
Our shoes echo on the metal stairs that lead us down, down, down into the cave. As we walk, we chat with our three guides. There’s our cave expert and a woman named Jézabel Janvre, our wine expert. And there’s Raphaël Pommier, a winemaker who is actually aging wines in these caves.
I immediately love spelunking. I really do. It’s a summer day, but as we climb deeper into the cave, I can feel the air cooling. Raphaël says that the temperature stays very consistent here, even in the heat of the summer, which is why he’s aging his wines in these caves. It’s Mother Nature’s wine fridge.
Our spelunking guide tells us that there are nearly 40 miles of galleries to explore and that the cave has no organic life. With all the stalactites and stalagmites, the cave looks like a city melted in the sun and solidified, almost like Gaudí sculpted it.
We carefully climb, and sometimes slip, our way deeper and deeper into the cave. I’m surprised at how safe and cozy it feels. I actually want to keep going. But we are here to taste wine, and as our guides remind us, we still have to hike back out afterwards.
We settle into a little enclave with natural stone benches and Raphaël and Jézabel start pulling out bottles from their backpacks. We start with a local mineral water to cleanse our palates, and then they pour the first round of wines. But before we taste, we have to do one more thing: turn off our lights.
I have never been in such darkness. It’s so dark I can’t see anything, not even the shadow of my hand. It’s disorienting and a little terrifying. There’s that primal sense that comes, like what if something lunges at us from the darkness? (I try to soothe myself by remembering that there is no organic life here, but still.) This, however, is what makes the tasting so special, Jézabel tells us.
She hands me a glass, and I’m shocked at what I can smell. With my sense of sight obscured and no interference from the natural world above, the aromas practically bounce out of the glass and into my nostrils. Focusing on tasting also helps keep my fear in check. I’m not thinking about the darkness around me, but rather what I’m smelling and tasting as we make our way through Raphaël’s wines. Raphaël says this isn’t surprising.
Raphaël Pommier, winemaker: When they do the experiment, you know, of, uh, this absolute darkness, people get afraid and after a couple of minutes they ask, “Could we, we switch on the light?” But when we do a tasting, we’ll notice that we could spend, uh, half an hour just tasting wine in the dark because in fact we are not losing senses. We’re using another one, the smell and the taste. We’re still connected. We’re still surrounded in an environment where something is happening.
Aislyn [in cave]: It’s true, because at first I was like, “Oh, this is scary.” And then once we started tasting wine—
Raphaël: You forget everything.
Aislyn: There’s something so intimate about sitting in the dark, tasting wines with the person who has nurtured them from soil to bottle. This reminds me that wine, like truffles, is at its roots an agricultural product. And even though I am deep underground, I feel grounded.
The next day, I wake up early to the sound of roosters crowing. We’ve stayed with Raphaël and his wife, Rachel, who live in an 18th-century home called Domaine de Cousignac. Because it’s so early, I decide to walk through their vineyards. Ardèche is the only region in France without a major train or highway system, and you can feel the softness. Bees and other insects buzz around, signs of the fruit to come. Dogs are barking and it’s so ripely summer, I can practically hear the vines growing.
It’s the perfect weather to visit Aix-en-Provence, our next stop on the tour. When we arrive in Aix, it’s like summer is just showing off now. The city is electric, all fountains and people strolling in the streets. No wonder so many famous artists were inspired to create here. There’s just something about the color of the buildings, the energy in the air. But while the light is gorgeous, I’m most taken with the farmers’ market.
We’re in a square off the main thoroughfare, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such gorgeous produce. Cherries glisten beneath the trees. Asparagus bundles stand at pert attention. Olives gleam appealingly.
We taste and buy, and taste and buy, and finally settle down to properly eat our treasures over espressos.
Tour guide: You know, when it’s the first one of the year that you eat, you have to make a wish.
Journalists: Oh yeah? Really?
Tour guide: Any fruit, uh? So you can make a lot of wishes at the beginning of summer.
Aislyn: I make a wish that I can move to Aix. Our trip is nearly over, but I’m not quite ready to say goodbye yet. But I put it out of my mind because there’s still more to taste. Things like almond-filled nougat. And a goat cheese called calisson. And finally, another calisson, but this one is a candy that you can only find in Provence.
The delicacies are made with a paste of almonds and candied melon spread over a wafer of unleavened bread and then topped with royal icing. They look kind of like the petals of a daisy. And apparently, they have a royal origin story.
Shop owner: So that was the—legend says that he was for the king, Roi René. King Roi Renéwas in the 15th century and he was getting married with Queen Jeanne [de Laval]. But Queen Jeanne has always a long face. She was not [a] very, not very smiling person. And Roi René ask, um, his first three men say, “Try to make something nice for her, you know.” And he create a calisson. And when she try the calisson, she eat it, and she smile.
Aislyn: I love that these treats were made for a sad queen centuries ago. And yet, I’m buying them in a little shop, right down the street from the farmers’ market.
I’m blissed out on the tastes, the sun, the light in this town, the mountains in the distance that inspired Paul Cezanne all those years ago. It’s so easy to fantasize about moving here, especially now that we’re nearing the end of the tour. I would visit the farmers’ market every day and cook every night. Life would be so much more perfect than it is at home. Right?
Marseille, our final stop, is famous for lots of things. It’s the second largest city in France. It’s on the coast, so there’s lots of delicious seafood. But it’s also famous for its navettes. These cookies are simple affairs, just a mix of flour, sugar, olive oil, and orange blossom water. They are shaped like little boats, which is a nod to history.
José Orsoni, baker: L’arrivée des saintes en Provence. Allez, je vous laisse.
Translator: Merci. So when the saints originally arrived in Provence, they came on a boat, so the original baker created this shape to represent their arrival in Provence.
José: Voilá. La navette est un biscuit typiquement Marseillais. C’est pas Provençal, c’est Marseillais.
Aislyn: We’re at Les Navettes des Accoules. It’s a family bakery famous for its navettes. We arrive too late to witness any baking and we all deflate a bit. But! The bakery’s charming owner, a salt-and-pepper-haired grandfatherly type named José Orsoni, wants us to taste everything. And so we oblige, because well, you know. We taste the traditional navettes, a pound cake–like finger, and these almondy macaroons made without flour. I love the subtle sweetness of the biscuits, the hint of orange blossom. They’re the kind of cookies you could eat, like, a million of and feel that it’s a vaguely healthy thing.
I think José feels bad he couldn’t show us their baking process, so he invites us for a glass of wine. We all walk over to a little plaza where, clearly, he knows everyone.
We order white wines, and José claims we can dunk our biscuits in the wine. And then he lights up a cigarette, eyes twinkling. He tells us that this is one of the oldest plazas in Europe, which I haven’t been able to fact-check, and about the cellars beneath the city. Soon, it becomes clear that he’s like the mayor of this plaza. Person after person comes by, shouting something in French. And it feels very fitting that we’re ending our trip with the head of one of the most famous family-owned bakeries in the city. It’s another person who’s spent his life passionately protecting a culinary tradition. Our wines arrive, I tip my head back, and drink it all in.
Many voices: Santé. Santé. Santé. Santé. Santé. Santé. Santé.
Aislyn: It’s now five months later. I’m back home, far from French goat cheese, and cave winetasting, and Lyon bouchons. I am not living in Aix—yet. But the Vallée is still with me. It’s with me in the ingredients I brought home, in the wine I lugged (very carefully) in my suitcase. It’s with me in a deeper way too. Before this trip, I felt pretty caught up in the business of life. I had walked away from the beautiful purity of ingredients. I was shopping boring grocery stores rather than the farmers’ market. Being in France, though, it felt like a homecoming. As I looked closer along the trail, I began to see that the real beauty of it is meeting the people behind those famous French foods. You get to meet the families who have been protecting foodways for generations. And while I won’t find calissons or that hyperlocal cheese in my neck of the woods, this weekend, I think I’ll return to the farmers’ market.
That was, well, me! If you want to learn more about the Vallée de la Gastronomie (and how could you not?) I’ll link to the website in the show notes. And I’ll also link to my AFAR bio and my social media handles. Next week, we’ll be back with AFAR contributing writer Ryan Knighton, who recently traveled to Kaua‘i to learn to surf new waves—as a blind man.
Ready for more Travel Tales? Visit afar.com/podcast, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Travel Tales by AFAR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps us book amazing guests like the one you heard today, and it helps other travelers find it.
This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.
Everyone has a travel tale. What’s yours?