Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hiking the Dordogne Valley, France

This June, the Trailtramps decided to take a short vacation in France.  We spent seven days hiking the gorgeous Dordogne Valley in Southwestern France (where all the place names, it seems, end in "ac"), then flew up to Paris for four days of incredible sightseeing, ice-cream, crepes, and wine.

In the South, where we joined an HF Holidays group, we saw some unexpectedly wonderful and strange sights, not the least of which was an exact replica of the Lascaux Caves, Europe's premier site for the  diversity and quality of its prehistoric cave paintings.  And chateau after chateau -- Beynac, Puymartin, Chateau de Roussie, Losse, Castlenaud, to name a few.

  Sarlat and environs. Numbers in the red circles pinpoint places of interest

Among the places we visited are Lascaux II (no. 2 on the map); Chateau de Puymartin (no. 7); Montignac (just north of no. 3); St-Genies (just northwest of no. 5):  Marquay (between nos. 7 and 8); St. Leon sur Vezere (south of no. 4); La Roque Saint-Christophe (just north of no. 8, between Tursac and Peyzac le Moustier); Domme (directly south of Sarlat);  and La Roque Cageac (slightly northwest of Domme).

We began our hiking and sightseeing trip in the medieval village of Sarlat, which was a half-hour's walk from our hotel. Sarlat is a prime example of a bastide, one of many fortified towns that dot the Southwestern countryside.  Bastides and chateaux/fortresses were built by both the French and the English who battled one another for control of this area during the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453).

Sarlat has narrow, winding cobblestone streets, a 12th century principally Gothic Cathedral, and a host of architecturally dramatic Medieval buildings -- constructed of the warm, golden stone from the surrounding countryside.  The remains of a defensive wall still surround the town.

Sarlat buildings feature turrets. steeples,  and sharply sloping roofs

Winding cobblestone streets feed into one another

 A street in Sarlat's main commercial district

 In the high season of July and August, the town is overrun with tourists. So plan accordingly if you're intending to visit.

Sarlat at night

This square featured lots of busy outdoor cafes, plus grandly lit buildings.

Our first walk of the trip took us to L'Enea Valley, an area of quiet lanes and villages a little off the beaten track. We started near Chateau de la Roussie, an old country house that's still a family home.  We followed trails through walnut groves, then took a track up a shallow valley where we came to  the crossroads at the Croix D'Allon.  From here, a lane along a ridge lead us down into Sarlat, where we shared our daily portion of coffee and artisinal ice cream.  Three boules, s'il vous plait. And don't skimp on the chantilly.

One of the great things about this trip was the leaders always finding a civilized place for a break where we could enjoy a coffee, ice cream or beer.

 Taking an ice cream/coffee break

The Chateau de la Roussie

  If you look carefully, you can spot a family member hanging laundry out to dry.


Here's something neither of us had ever noted before -- a Lauze roof. Peculiar to the Dordogne Valley, it's made of the local schist, a stone that can be broken into large, irregularly shaped pieces. These interlocking chunks of stone are then assembled together, the same way a  dry stone wall is constructed, without mortar or other connecting materials.  It's breezy in Summer, but damnably cold in Winter.  Probably leaky too. The house shown here is an addition to the chateau. 

On a trail, somewhere between the Chateau and the Croix D'Allon Crossroads.

Bories, drystone structures, can be seen throughout this region

Bories are ubiquitous in this area, though no one is sure of their original use.  They may have been shepherds' houses, field shelters, storage units, or even dwellings. They enhance the picturesque countryside today and are used commonly for storage.

The following day, we ventured to the village of Beynac, four miles south-west of Sarlat, on the north bank of the Dordogne River.  Beynac is famous for its chateau, which towers high above the village. We spent about an hour touring this immense many-chambered estate.  It dates from the 13th Century, and changed hands several times during the One Hundred Years war between France and England. Richard the Lion Hearted was one of its more well-known conquerors.

The Chateau of Beynac, in all its glory 

Forbidding looking, n'est-ce pas? Well, that's the point.  It's got a dungeon, huge halls with immense oak dining tables, heavy broadswords, crossbows, lances and other weapons, faded tapestries, an immense, well-equipped kitchen, stained glass windows, a charming little private chapel, a drawbridge, even outhouses (clinging to the side of the exterior wall in the photo). In short, everything you could ever hope to see in a 13th-Century French chateau.

The drawbridge

In times of siege, defenders drew up the bridge and dumped all kinds of offending stuff, including boiling quicklime, water and human wastes (and probably a cow or two, if Monty Python's "Holy Grail" flick is to be believed), onto the besiegers below. We were told that boiling oil--the stuff of oft-told castle-storming yarns-- was probably was not dumped over because of its expense.

From the top of the battlements

The chateau sits atop a very steep hill, so high it's hard to imagine any army besieging it and taking it.  But taken it was, by the English, then back again by the French, then the English, and the French again, in whose hands it remains today.  That's the Dordogne River in the background (where a near-tragedy befell one of the Tramps). Also in the background, but barely visible, are a number of other chateaus, some built by the English -- not wishing to be outdone by their French enemy.  For every French fortress built on high ground, a British one was erected on an opposing hill, and vice versa. The famous Jazz Age chanteuse Josephine Baker also had a chateau in this area.

After the tour of the chateau, we continued our walk, passing through farmland and woodland, climbing gently into the hills behind Beynac.  We then returned to the village, where we had... coffee.

  On the outskirts north of Beynac

Who lives in this little charmer, we wondered.  Snow White? The Seven Dwarves?  Rumpelstiltskin? Fairly-tale houses like this greeted us virtually everywhere we traveled in this lovely valley.

The next day was a free day, so we decided to go canoeing on the Dordogne River, where one of us unintentionally took a dip in the fast-flowing water.  We were taking our midpoint break and trying to beach the canoe by positioning it at the foot of a cement ramp, then pulling it up to dry ground.  Well, one of us slipped while getting out of the boat, and wound up in the river.  Say goodbye to that Canon supershot camera. But not the pedometer -- that sprang back to life after a few days of drying out.  Might as well mention the name -- it was an Omron pedometer and both of us wear one wherever we go -- even in the Dordogne River!

Preparing for the canoe trip

If only I knew then what I know now....

The fearless canoeists in action

We didn't have to put much effort into keeping the canoe moving -- the strong current took care of that.

The following day was devoted to sightseeing.  Our first stop was the replica of the Lascaux Caves, called Lascaux II  Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside the caves, so you'll have to take our word when we say the paintings inside are beyond magnificent (but we lifted an an image of one of the paintings from the Internet and posted it below). The caves were discovered in1940 by four boys. As more and more people visited the caves, the increased levels of carbon dioxide and the effects of artificial lighting took their toll and the original paintings began to fade.  Lascaux II, an exact replica of the original, was constructed over a ten-year period so visitors can get an idea of how striking these masterpieces are.

A wonderful way to see the original now if you can't make it to Lascaux II is by watching Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed in with a film crew and accompanies the startling views with awesome music.

  Painting of bull at Lascaux Caves

After an hour or so inside the Caves, we boarded our bus for St.-Genies, a charming village whose main feature is a chapel, La Chapelle du Cheylard,  housing a number of lovely, though faded, medieval frescoes.

One of the better-preserved frescoes inside the chapel

Our next stop was to buy lunch in Montignac, a bustling market town on the River Vezere. We bought our usual baguette containing cheese and tomato and ate it later in the day on the banks of the river.

The market at Montignac

Yum. Yum. 

No, we didn't yield to temptation, if that's what you're wondering -- but we sure were weakening. After all, part of the reason for traveling to France is to feast on delights like these.

We moved on to St.-Leon-Sur-Vezere, a picturesque village on the River Vezere. The village boasts one of the region's most attractive Romanesque churches.  It's also the home of two splendid chateaus, one dating from the 14th century in the main square, and the other near the river.

The Chateau de Losse near Montignac

 Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

After our riverside lunch near the village of St-Leon-sur-Vezere, we walked up a slight incline to this delightful little cafe, called appropriately enough, Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. There, we had our usual afternoon pick-me-up, a cup of high-octane  French coffee --  the kind we just can't seem to find in New York.

The real dejeuner sur l'herbe

Now it was time for one of the unexpected and wonderful highlights of the trip, Roque St-Christophe. Here, for over 30,000 years, troglodyte men, women and children lived in caves and rock ledges on a cliff face over a half a mile long.  The main balcony level affords terrific views of the Vezere Valley, and a self-guided tour depicts lifestyles from ancient to medieval and early Renaissance days.

Today, you can see reconstructions of bakeries, kitchens, blacksmiths, metalworkers, as well as defensive and engineering works including rock hurlers and hoists.

General view of the cliff face

 Ateliers (workshops)  of all kinds  (butchers, stonemasons, architects and engineers) lined this passageway, which was originally covered with wooden buildings.

A few of the engineering marvels used for hoisting materials up and down the cliff face

They're  great examples of state-of-the-art medieval technological know-how.

An on-site reconstruction showing the rigors of stone-age existence at the Roque

The next day, we traveled about four miles northwest of Sarlat to visit Puymartin Chateau. It sits on a steep hill overlooking the surrounding countryside.  Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a Catholic stronghold against the Protestants of Sarlat during the religious wars that racked the area. The family who own the chateau still live there and can be seen going about their daily business. Many of the rooms have been restored to their former beauty, containing the furniture, tapestries, paintings, and other trappings that would have been in use when the place was a fully-functioning estate.

The Puymartin Chateau

The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of La Dame Blanche-- the White Lady, whose real name was Therese de Saint Clar.  Accused of cheating on her husband, she was imprisoned in the chateau, then buried behind a wall in one of the tower rooms after her death.  Today, the guide told us, her restless spirit still roams the place, seeking who knows what?

One of the highlights of the chateau is the Mythological Cabinet, a room containing depictions in delicate charcoal of various scenes from classical mythology.  Unfortunately, photos were not allowed.

After our visit to the chateau, we headed north, through ancient woodland inhabited by wild boar (though we failed to sight any of the shy creatures).  On lanes and footpaths, through tiny hamlets, the route gained a low ridge, with wonderful views.  Eventually, after making our way though delightful countryside, we reached the village of Marquay.

On the way to Marquay
This quiet country road marked by farms, inns, homes and other buildings was typical of our trip in the Dordogne Valley.

 Newborn calf

Passing by a farm, we happened on this scene.  The mother had just given birth, and was cleaning her new baby.  We stayed till she managed to nudge the little fellow (or gal), up on all fours.  It took barely  five minutes to get the calf up and about.

The following day found us exploring the fortified town of Domme.  The town is strategically situated on a craggy hill overlooking the Dordogne River, directly south of Sarlat.  Built in 1280, most of the town's outer walls are still standing.  We entered Domme through the eastern gate, the Porte des Tours (visible in the photo below).  Inside, the mellow sandstone buildings were well restored.  Beneath the 16th-century market hall lies the entrance to a small cave system, noted for its stalagmites and stalactites.  Domme is famous for its Belvedere, a terrace with magnificent views over the Dordogne River and surrounding countryside.

The walls, towers, and eastern gate of Domme

A number of creative artists have come here in search of inspiration.  Among these was the American novelist Henry Miller, who thought the area the nearest thing to Paradise on earth.

The gorgeous view of the Dordogne River and one of its bridges from Domme's Belvedere

Leaving Domme and it's narrow streets

 After exploring Domme, we left the village through the old South Gate -- the Porte de la Combe (Valley).  We descended on a winding wooded path through the village of Cenac, which nestles below Domme. 

 Another small unexpected treasure -- this jewel is Ste. Marie church in Cenac

On the menu at a restaurant near Cenac--mushroom omelets

I'm a stranger to these parts, but a mushroom omelet for nearly 15 Euros -- delicious as cepes may be -- seems like Paris prices to me. In one of the places we stopped in this region, by contrast, two coffees were a mere Euro apiece.  In one cafe in Paris, we paid 11 Euros for two cups.

Former cliff dwellings above Gageac

Passing through the village, we crossed the Dordogne River by the road bridge, and followed lanes and ancient trails through quaint hamlets and aged woods, eventually descending into La Roque Gageac.  This delightful village is one of France's beauty spots, with houses perched tight against limestone cliffs overlooking the river.

At Gageac,we boarded a gabore, a flat-bottomed boat used to haul wood and wine to the coast, but now used for tourists. Our trip down the Dordogne gave us good views of the houses on the cliffs.  We went as far as Chateau de Castelnaud before turning around for the trip back to Gageac.

 View of troglodyte dwelling above the metal mesh no longer open to tourists due to a rock slide, and riverside houses and from our gabore

The chateau of Castelnaud

At the confluence of the Dordogne and Ceou valleys sits the imposing chateau of Castelnaud. Great rival of the chateau of Beynac, it changed hands nine times during the Hundred Years War between France and England.

This wonderful trip was orchestrated by our experienced and resourceful leaders, John and Sandy, who briefed us each night on the next day's activities, and conjured up bits of after-dinner fun, including games of petanque, charades, and hilarious quizzes.

That wraps up this unforgettable trip to the Dordogne Valley.  The following day, we flew to Paris, where we spent four delightful days taking in the sights.  One of us will be returning to France in September, while the other stays home and plans our next venture. Wherever it is, I have two conditions for traveling there: First, you can't drink the water.  Second, you have to sign a release form.