A Dazzling Dalliance in the Dordogne.
5th September. We seemed to be oscillating backwards and forwards through time.
From the Lozère, we went from Gallo Roman, via Celtic to Prehistoric at our destination on the River Vézère, a tributary of the Dordogne.
Summer also changed to Autumn as we drove through the Parc Naturel Regional des Causses. Deciduous trees bordered the parched, golden fields with rims of blood red foliage. Neolithic Dolmens and Menhirs abounded. It was a complete change from the dark, secret forests of conifers that we had left behind.
Summer re-joined us as we crossed into the Dordogne. Temperatures soared once again into the 30s, while lush, green forest clung to cave-ridden limestone escarpments above the river.
We have decided that La Belle France really does deserve her title! Even the ordinary bits between the many celebrated tourist destinations are beautiful. We stopped at a motorway services at Severac le Chateau and were treated to views to die for over a hilltop village topped off with a chateau! Every village seems to look like a film set – and here in the Dordogne, we were about to discover that a good few of them were…!
France certainly is the middle of nowhere, though. We meandered for miles without seeing any large towns and wondered at what drives the economy, other than EU grants…! We saw plenty of evidence of EU support in the fabulously engineered new roads. We saw a spectacular viaduct which spanned a whole valley. It led from, well, nowhere much to nowhere much! Mark said that he had found only 17 major cities marked in bold in our atlas of France. Two of these are Caen and Poitiers, neither of which would warrant the title ‘seething metropolis’ in my book!
We followed the Dordogne River to Sarlat-la-Canéda. Then we rocked up at Les Eyzies-deTayac, which is gorgeous. We are, once again, back in limestone country. There is a rich history of prehistoric man – the caves here have been used as troglodyte dwellings for thousands of years. Magnificent friezes of prehistoric paintings were discovered by a group of schoolboys in the Lascaux Cave during the 1940s. Like most of the most really stunning places it is very touristy, however. We have come across more Brits here than at any other time during our travels.
The town of Les Eyzies, right on the River Vézère, is backed by an overhanging limestone cliff, into which some of the buildings nestle. Personally, I would feel uncomfortable with that tonnage of stone hanging over my roof, but I guess that it has been there for millennia! The town has the feel of the Cotswolds; that aching but over-commercialised prettiness of Broadway or Bourton-on-the-Water, down even to the golden Cotwold-type stone!
After a long drive, we felt that we had earned a relaxing glass of wine. Mark nipped out and in the absence of a supermarket, stopped in an artisan cave. He returned with a box of 6 bottles of local Bergerac wines. While Bergerac does not share quite the kudos of the Grand Vins of neighbouring Bordeaux, the bottle we opened was by FAR the most expensive that we have bought on the trip – but it was so worth it.
It cost 6 Euros!
I am not good on my French wines. To be honest, for many years I studiously avoided them (and all things French) on principle, since the French banned British beef due to Mad Cow Disease. This was, of course, before the French admitted that not only did they have Mad Cow Disease – they had been feeding their cows on sewage for years!
That’s my main reason, but certainly in the UK, French wines are also about twice the price for half the quality of the New World wines, which are, after all, made from French grapes from French vines exported out there, often with a French wine maker in tow! In fact, after The Great French Wine Blight, many French vinyards re-planted with French vines from the USA!
Anyway, I shall get off me soapbox and stop wining.
We relaxed with an evening walk down by the river. The doggies loved it. It was so picturesque with the sunset lighting up Les Eyzies and the cliffs above. The campsite La Riviere is lovely and thank goodness, we have a shady spot. Sadly, it is fully booked at the weekend, but we might go on to the seaside and leave Steve in peace.
Steve is the reason that we have come to Les Eyzies; in fact Steve is largely the reason that we accidentally bought a caravan and chose this lifestyle! He even joined us to give help and moral support on our Our Maiden Voyage. Steve has just moved here permanently with his wife, Gabrielle. He looked well and said that already after 2 months, he can’t imagine living back in the UK with all the traffic and the cold, grey weather.
Wednesday – Sarlat & Beynac
We met with Steve and Gabrielle in Sarlat. Steve is very exact at giving directions. He hit his own personal zenith of vagueness the last time we saw him with “We’ll see you at the pub. I can’t remember the name of the pub or the name of the village…” I won’t go into the lengthy shenanigans involved in THAT particular rendezvous (it wasn’t first left, first right and as such, we COULD miss it!) To add to the interest, the pub was in a mobile phone black spot. Ultimately, the achievement of togetherness for pie and a pint did involve a search party!
So when Steve said; “We’ll meet you at the Lidl on the road to Bergerac” we at least had some place names to go with, although all roads lead to Bergerac. Steve did add a further element of jeopardy by altering the arrangements from “See you there at 12” with a phone call at 11.15 to say “let’s meet at 11.30!”
We found the guys eventually, a little late after sitting in horrendous traffic, which Gabrielle said was usual…! Traffic – but definitely no cold, grey weather. Mark had called Steve to let him know that we were running late “We’re just on the outskirts of Bergerac, so where is the Lidl?” “You’re WHERE?!!!!” Steve berated us at the wind up; “You had me going there!”
Sarlat is a beautiful, medieval city, apparently where they filmed Les Miserables. It was market day, so it was really busy and a bit much for the dogs in 36C. They were a bit freaked by the crowds and getting barged by shopping bags. They are only little, after all and Mark and I found it quite tricky trying to carry all four of them, one under each arm!
Steve tipped us off that they filmed Chocolat in nearby Beynac, so that had to be done. Beynac is on the Dordogne river, so we figured that a doggy swim would also be in order! Beynac was much less crowded and utterly beautiful. We had a delicious fruit ice cream in the shade looking up at the ramparts of the castle and the dogs did indeed get their swim.
We met up with Steve and Gabrielle again in the evening for a drink at their new house, which is as amazing as the surroundings. Steve had shown us pictures before they moved. The house itself looked spectacular, but the photos did not prepare you for the setting! It overlooks rolling hills and forest. We sat on the terrace in the warm evening and enjoyed the bottle of Bergerac that we had brought as a house warming present. The only thing that spoiled the ambience was the dogs raising a frantic cacophony because we had to leave them out of sight of Steve’s pet rabbits – which also happened to be out of sight of us. I guess that you can’t have everything!
We all had dinner in the excellent Restaurant les Combarelles. The proprietor, Didier, had agreed that it was OK to bring dogs, but was perhaps a little taken aback when we rocked up with 4…!
We ate outside in the balmy evening air and I must admit, for a set menu of 20 Euros, I have rarely tasted better food! I had scallop kebabs to start and Magret of Duck – slices of rare duck with crispy, bacon flavoured skin in a creamy peppercorn sauce served with a timbale of root vegetables. I can still taste it now! Pink slices of duck melting on my tongue. I had a small local baked cheese roundel with honey and walnuts to finish. Mark had a cassoulet and sticky toffee pud. We are on a budget, so this is the first meal out that we have had since we came away. It really was a treat and so lovely to share it with our dear friends who, like us, are starting a new life. We raised a toast to living our dreams!
Like many of the buildings in the area, the restaurant is built into the cliff. Didier explained to us that the farmers all used to help each other with building. They would put wedges of wood into cracks in the rock in the winter. These would expand as they got wet or froze. This broke off the stone – and when they had amassed enough loose stone, they would build! I am not sure if it is strictly the freeze-thaw process, but I might allow it as that so that I can mention it for a second time…
The freeze-thaw process is something that I learnt about at school – water gets into cracks in rocks, expands as it freezes and thus breaks up the rock. I have seen it in action only once – and remarkably, this was not in the mountains. Rather, it was in the Mad House where we used to live – and about which I will probably write one day – since it was an experience that was frequently very much stranger than fiction!
During dinner with friends, we heard a large crash. Following a couple of harsh winters, the stone coping around our roof had given up its 400 year battle with gravity. Our dinner guests were slightly bemused by my reaction to the partial collapse of our home. I was overjoyed – I love science in action and it’s not every day that you get to witness the freeze-thaw process first hand!
Lani scratched at the door in the middle of the night. It was a warm, clear night and the stars were truly beautiful. I could see the Milky Way like a diaphanous swag across the sky, while the cliffs of Les Eyzies were illuminated like a magical city. Although Lani got me up 3 times in the night and I felt like a zombie, I was so pleased to have witnessed such a magical spectacle!
We couldn’t get a week at the campsite as it was booked up. This was a shame, as they had a special offer of 7 nights for 6. We had only paid 15 Euros per night for the 3 nights that we had stayed. It was one of the cheapest sites yet – and certainly one of the best!
It was raining lightly in the morning, which was an incredible relief after the mid-30C heat. We walked the dogs on the river and decided to move on.
We elected to head for the coast. We can’t deny that we are really rather excited about the prospect of going back to the seaside!
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