Published: November 9th 2009September 6th 2009
Prior to planning our trip to France, I had never heard of the region called Dordogne. Provence, the Riviera, Normandy, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley were all well-known in my mind and to everyone else. It wasn't until I saw a television show that Rick Steves had produced on the Dordogne that I knew we were definitely going to go out of our way to ensure we would visit. The picture-postcard scenes I saw of people lazily paddling down a serene river with a golden-hued stone village as its backdrop captured my attention immediately. As I drooled over the images, it appeared as though it would be a photographers dream setting, so I was quite looking forward to photographing it myself!
The Dordogne is an area of south-west France that is located within the region of Aquitaine, between the Loire Valley and the High Pyrénées. It is well-known throughout France as a gorgeous river valley with both natural and man-made beauty including rock-sculpted villages, quiet back roads, 1,500 castles, amazing panoramic vistas, foie gras, prehistoric caves art, and cliff-side villages that reflect perfectly upon the calm Dordogne River. For some strange reason, this region of France is not well-known amongst
most visitors, but we were determined to find out more, so we decided to spend four nights in the area. This was definitely the part of our trip that I was most excited to see and experience!
Day 10 (Sunday, September 6, 2009)
Forewarning about the entry for day 10; today included some one of the worst travel experiences that either one of us have ever had, so don’t be surprised at the overly negative tone of this entry. In fact, I was so upset when we finally got to our hotel that night that I didn’t even bother to journal as I normally do; I was too irritated and upset.
We left Chinon and the Loire Valley bright and early in the morning, and began the long drive south towards the Dordogne, where we planned to spend four nights in the small village of Beynac. Prior to our arrival however, we had two stops planned along the way in order to break-up the long drive.
The first of these stops was the town of Oradour-sur-Glane. The first two hours and 15 minutes of the drive went smoothly, until we were about 15 minutes
away from reaching the town. Although we were hesitant to do so, we listened to our navigation system when it instructed us to turn down a gravel road. Considering that we hadn't yet driven down a non-paved road in France, it seemed slightly peculiar, but I figured that the navigation system knew what it was doing. Unfortunately, it did not. After having turned down the road, we were soon greeted with some of the worse driving conditions either one of us has ever seen. The road literally appeared as though it hadn't been driven upon in 40 years. There was so much brush covering the "road" that we weren't quite sure if it was actually going to lead us anywhere but the woods. There were massive ditches and huge boulders that we had to drive over; remember, we had rented a very tiny little car, so I was absolutely panicked that we were going to either get stuck as we bottomed-out or that we would do so much damage to the underside of the car that it would stop working.
In addition to the problems described above, the road was so unbelievably narrow that even if we had wanted
to turn around (which we did!) we wouldn't have been able to; we would have had to reverse, which we didn't think was much better than if we continued to drive. I just kept envisioning us getting stuck, or the paint job getting so scratched up from the amount of trees and bushes that were brushing up alongside it. We kept telling ourselves that there was no way this road could continue on for much longer, but of course, we were completely wrong! Nearly 15 minutes after we had initially turned down the road, we finally saw a "real" road (i.e. paved) in sight! I was so stressed out by this point that I could barely breath; thankfully, we were only minutes from Oradour-sur-Glane, so I had some time to try and relax in order to prepare seeing what I knew would be a very emotional visit.
For most people, hearing the town name of Oradour-sur-Glane holds no meaning. However, I guarantee you that every single French citizen knows about this place. Prior to World War II, this little village was like so many others in France; it had less than 1,000 inhabitants and its people lived a very
simple life. However, that all changed after a fateful day on June 10, 1944.
After the D-Day landing in Normandy several days prior, the German Army had been ordered to make its way across France to stop the Allied advance. Along the way, some of the German soldiers had come under attack from some of the members of the French Resistance who were attempting to disrupt the army in order to hamper communication. It has been said that on the morning of June 10, 1944, a commanding officer of the German Army indicated that he had been approached by two French citizens who stated that a German Officer was being held by members of the Resistance in Oradour-sur-Vayre. In retaliation, the Germany Army decided to seal off the town of Oradour-sur-Glane. Unfortunately, what the Germany Army had not realized was that they had fatally confused Oradour-sur-Glane for Oradour-sur-Vayre.
Once Oradour-sur-Glane was completely surrounded, the German Army ordered all the townspeople to congregate in the village square, and informed them that they would need provide their identification paperwork so that it could be examined. Unfortunately, this was just a ploy to get all of the townspeople out of their
homes and buildings, because as soon as everyone had gathered, the women and children were led and then locked inside the village church, while all of the men were led to several different garages and sheds. Unfortunately, the men did not realize that these locations had machine-guns that were waiting for their arrival.
As soon as the men entered the garages and sheds, the German soldiers began shooting at them, although not at places on their bodies which would have killed them instantly. Instead, they shot at areas such as their legs, so that the men would not die immediately, but instead slowly. Once most of the shooting had finished, the men (most of whom were still alive) were doused with fuel and then set ablaze. During this horrific incident, only five men managed to escape, while the 190 others were murdered.
Meanwhile, while the men were getting shot at and burned alive, the women and children were waiting in the locked church in complete confusion and panic. They soon found out however, that the soldiers also planned to burn them alive. After a fire was started within the church, the women and children tried to flee the
church by escaping through doors or windows; unfortunately, most of these people were met with sudden death as they were machine-gunned down. In total, 247 women and 205 children were murdered in the church or as they tried to escape. Only one women was able to survive, having somehow escaped through a small window of the church . She manged to hide in the bushes overnight until the Germans had left.
After the Germany Army had murdered everyone, they lit the entire village on fire and then left. The surviving family members were not able to bury their dead until a few days after the horrific incident had occurred. In total, 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane were killed in just a matter of hours and an entire village had been left to rubble.
The tragedy of this event was not lost, however, as years later, the French Government decided to create a memorial museum in honor of the lives that had been lost in the massacre. As the surviving townspeople had a new Oradour-sur-Glane completely rebuilt away from the ruins of the village, the creation of the museum and memorial began.
The entire village has been left exactly
as it appeared on that fateful day. As soon as I read of the village and its memorial, I knew that we would have to pay a visit. When we arrived in the town, we parked in a lot, and then walked about five minutes down to the Oradour-sur-Glane Memorial Center.
This excellent museum provided a very detailed history on the events leading up to the massacre, including the different opinions as to why the German Army did what they did. They also had home-video footage of the locals that had been filmed a year before the attack occurred, which was quite surreal to watch. There was also a 12 minute film that showed disturbing footage that was filmed immediately after the event. In addition, the museum had a great display on victims of September 11th, including some of the wreckage from the buildings and personal relics from those who died.
After we finished touring the museum, we walked to the entrance gates of the village, where we saw a sign that read "souviens-toi" (remember). As we walked along the eerily silent main street of the former village of Oradour-sur-Glane, we saw unbelievable destruction. Many of the
gutted-out buildings were left with only their front facade and the occasional side or back walls. There were plaques on each one of the buildings, explaining who had lived there and what occupation they held. Many of the homes had personal relics still sitting inside, such as rusted bicycles, sewing machines, bed frames, and cars.
Seeing those personal items left exactly in the same spot for the last 65 years really hit it home for me. To even contemplate the massive amount of tragedy that had occurred in this tiny village was nearly impossible. I cannot imagine the confusion, anger, and fear that the residents had when the German soldiers began ushering the women and children to the church and the men to the different garages. How could they have been so unlucky and how was any of this even remotely fair? Unfortunately, as I have learned throughout my life, life is not always fair and just. Horrific things happen every single day to those who deserve it least. Tragedy never makes sense, especially when an entire village is decimated in one single day for something they had absolutely nothing to do with. I believe that we must learn
from all tragedies that occur in life; society must never forget so as to not repeat the same mistakes again. We also need to allow ourselves to realize that life is short, and no one truly knows when it all might be taken away.
I highly commend the French for leaving this village open for all to see; while some might think of it as walking through an open graveyard, I believe that seeing these sort of tragedies first hand is necessary in life. People have to realize and see for themselves that bad things really can happen, and that we, as a human race, are the only ones that can prevent these types of tragedies from happening again. Any visitor to France who is within a few hours driving distance of Oradour-sur-Glane really needs to make an effort to visit this sight.
From the emotional visit at Oradour-sur-Glane, we began another long drive to the village of Collonges-la-Rouge. In French, rouge means red, and this tiny village is famous for its buildings made of deep-red sandstone and its slate-covered roofs. The thought of photographing an all-red village excited me greatly, especially if contrasted against a bright blue
After driving for about one hour and a half, we finally reached Collonges-la-Rouge. For some reason, I told myself to peer at the gas gauge, and when I did, I noticed that we didn’t have much gas. I thought this was quite strange as Mike is usually on the ball with ensuring that the gas tank is filled-up. As bad as an empty gas tank is in the middle of nowhere, it's even worse when it happens to occur on a Sunday. Sunday in France = very few gas stations open; not a good thing for us! All of our guidebooks had warned us that if you have a car rental, ensure that you have enough gas to get you through a Sunday as open gas stations are truly few and far between, especially in the countryside.
Instead of parking at Collonges-la-Rouge and touring the village, we first thought it would be a much better idea to attempt to find a gas station. According to our navigation system, there was one about a mile away from Collonges-la-Rouge, so we hoped it was correct and would not lead us astray. Fortunately, the gas station did in fact exist,
and it was even open! However, it was not staffed by an attendant, so we were required to use our credit card to purchase the gas. Unfortunately, the machine wouldn't accept our credit card; I can only assume this was because it wasn't a French credit card. We started to panic at this point considering that we were truly in the middle of nowhere and that I couldn't imagine why there would be more than one gas station in the immediate area.
For some reason, we both thought it would be a good idea to drop me off in the village so that I could explore while Mike went off in search of a gas station. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea, but at the time, it seemed like a great way to kill two birds with one stone. However, I will mention that there was a teeny, tiny little part of my stomach that told me we weren't making the right decision; sometimes I should make a better habit of listening to my gut.
After getting dropped off, I nervously wandered through Collonges-la-Rouge, wondering almost the entire time if Mike had been able to find gas.
I only spent about 20 minutes photographing the very beautiful and unique town until I decided to walk back up to the main road to wait for him. Mike had indicated that he would park the car in one of the parking lots and come find me after he had finished obtaining some gas. I figured that since it had only been 20 minutes, that he probably wasn’t yet done so I would be able to catch him before he began trying to look for me.
I waited in front of that town for what seemed to be like a very long time. As each minute went by, I became increasingly nervous and wondered where in the heck he was. After about 20 minutes, some of the townspeople began looking at me, probably wondering why in the heck I was sitting all by myself for such a long period of time. As the clock continued to tick, I tried to find other things to occupy my time and mind, although nothing really seemed to work, including fiddling with my camera to waste time. By the time I had been sitting for 30 minutes, the worry really began to set
in. There was no sight of Mike and I was panicked that he was driving God knows where trying to find gas, or that he had run out of gas miles away. I envisioned him sitting in the car up in the nearby hillside with zero gas in the tank. By the time 45 minutes had rolled-around, there was still no sign of Mike, so I decided to go search the parking lots to see if maybe he had parked the car and was waiting for me. Of course, just as I had predicted, he was no where to be found. At this point, I was on the verge of tears. I felt so incredibly helpless, as I had absolutely nothing on me, the only exception being my camera; no purse, no money, no nothing. Just me and my camera, which wouldn’t do me a whole lot of good if I was going to be stuck in the town for a few hours while Mike walked back to the town from the gas-less car.
Just as I walked back to the bench in the front of town and hung my head in defeat, I saw a blue Ford drive
pass me. I looked up, not knowing for sure whether or not it was him, and then quickly walked over the parking lot where the car had pulled in. Low and behold, it was him. He had a smile on his face, but as soon as he saw mine, that quickly disappeared. I tried not to get too upset, but I told him I had been worried sick for the last hour.
He then began to explain his story. He had driven to many gas stations that were either closed or at which his credit cards didn’t work (there was no attendants at any of these stations). Finally, he pulled into a station that happened to have many customers purchasing gas. His credit card still didn’t work. As a last resort, he asked a man for help in French (aidez-moi s'il vous plaît?). With his minimal French, he attempted to ask the man where another gas station was. The man spoke about as good of English as Mike did French, so he couldn't answer the question for Mike. However, while the man was attempting to answer the question, a bright idea formed in Mike's head. He somehow thought to
ask the man if he could charge our gas on his credit card, and then Mike would give him cash back. Thankfully, the very nice French man agreed to help Mike out. Had he not, we would have been in a world of trouble as he was literally driving on fumes by that point. That kind man did not have to help us, but he did so out of the goodness of his heart, so when people make that awful assumption that all French people are rude, I'll make sure to tell them about this interaction!
While Mike was explaining the story, he was at the same time also typing the address for our hotel in Beynac into the navigation system. After punching in the address, several cities called Beynac came up. Mike attempted to ask me which one was correct, but at the time I was too tired and upset to care, so I told him to choose the one that most sounded most correct. Unfortunately, we would soon learn that this was a huge mistake.
Our navigation system had indicated that the hotel was about two hours away from Collonges-la-Rouge, which was about right according to
the research I had done beforehand. However, as the drive went on, I thought it was quite strange that none of the cities we passed by sounded familiar or were located on any of the maps I had.
When we finally reached "Beynac", I knew immediately that we were in the wrong Beynac. Although the Beynac we were planning on staying at was a small village, I knew that it would have hotels and restaurants. The Beynac we had arrived at couldn't have had more than 20 buildings, all of which were private homes. I looked at several maps, but still had absolutely no idea where the hell we were. After pulling over to the side of the road, we reentered the address in our navigation system and were able to find the correct address. Unfortunately, the navigation system indicated that the correct Beynac was more than TWO HOURS AWAY! Not only had we just driven for two hours, but we had done so in the complete opposite direction that we should have, and now would have to drive for another two long hours!
At this point, I was about ready for a full on freak out, but
prevented myself from doing so after realizing that we had no other option than to continue driving. I was immensely concerned that our bed and breakfast wouldn’t be open, so I figured that we needed to call them as soon as possible to let them know that we were going to be arriving very late. At this point, it was around 19:30, so I wasn't even sure if we were going to be able to find a place to make a phone call, considering that we were once again in the middle of nowhere.
Luckily, we we found a city shortly thereafter that happened to have a small convenience store. As I ran up to the store, I noticed it was closed, but I thought I would go ahead and walk up to it just in case someone might be inside. Fortunately, there were two people standing behind the cash registers counting down their tills. I banged on the door, and the sense of panic and urgency on my face must have made them realized that I needed help. After letting us in, I immediately asked in French if they spoke English, as I figured that the conversation I
was about to have would be difficult for me to communicate in French. With my continuing luck, they stated they spoke no English. I took a deep breath, knowing that what I was about to do wasn't going to be easy for me.
Unfortunately, I let my emotions get the best of me, and as soon as my voice cracked, tears began rolling down my checks. I attempted to communicate in my broken French that we had been lost, but were no longer lost, and needed to call our hotel to let them know we would arrive late. Unfortunately, my frustration caused the tears to turn into full-blown crying, and I soon sounded like a blubbering idiot. The man and his wife looked at me, and then each other, and probably wondered what the hell they had gotten themselves into by allowing a crying American to walk into their store. Eventually, even with my huffing and puffing, I was able to communicate that I needed to use their phone. The man led me to an office in the back of their store, and dialed the number for me. I was able to calm myself down much better as I
knew I really had to focus in order to speak to the people at the bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, they spoke about as much English as I did French, so our conversation was an interesting mix of the two languages. The man couldn’t seem to understand how we had gotten lost; I tried to explain our story, but it just wasn’t coming out right. I kept saying "we are lost", when I really wanted to state that "we were lost", but, since my mind wasn't working correctly, I had completely forgotten had to state something in past tense in French. I truly wanted to either scream or pull my hair out in frustration. Even worse, Mike kept trying to rush me as the store owners looked irritated that I was taking so long. Eventually, I gave up trying to explain the situation to the B & B owner, but was able to get the message across that we would be late.
I will be forever grateful for that French couple that allowed us into their store. I'm sure that they have told everyone about the crazy, crying American who walked into their store after closing and needed help but
couldn't explain why. Again, just as with the man who purchased gas for us on his credit card, that couple didn't have to go out of their way to help us, but they did and to this day, I am still so thankful.
We both got back in the car, and drove for nearly two hours in silence. It's not that either one of us was angry at one another; it was simply an extremely stressful situation for both of us, and it was probably better that neither one of us spoke.
When we finally reached the correct village of Beynac, we followed the directions listed in Rick Steves France book in order to reach the bed and breakfast. The book instructed us to turn left at at Hotel Bonnet. At first, we didn't see the hotel nor a sign for the hotel, so before we knew it, we had passed Beynac. Knowing that we had obviously missed the turn, we turned around and tried again. This time, we saw a sign for the hotel, and turned left as indicated. The tiny little gravel road was very dark and did not have any signs for the bed and
breakfast; however, since the book had instructed us to turn left at the hotel, we figured we just needed to continue driving until we reached it. Well, after driving for about 30 minutes up and down this very bumpy road, we realized that we probably weren't on the right road. By this point, both of us were beyond exasperated with our lovely driving experiences of the day, so we were at each others throats. We finally drove all the way back down to the main road in town. When we did so, we realized that what we had seen was only a sign for the hotel, not the actual hotel. DUH! So, we continued driving down the road, and about 30 seconds later, we saw Hotel Bonnet, and shortly thereafter, finally saw the bed and breakfast, Le Petit Versailles,
at 10 PM.
After parking, Mike jumped right out of the car while I sat still in my seat. I told him I had absolutely no emotional or mental capacity to talk to anyone else tonight, so could he please go do so for me. Thankfully, he obliged without any complaint. From the car, I could hear him
saying over and over again "désolé, désolé, désolé", which is French for sorry! The owners of the bed and breakfast appeared not to be irritated, so I was quite relieved. I soon joined Mike up in the room, and the owner came up to make sure we were settled. I was able to communicate in French that it had been a very horrible day, and then I was also able to explain how we had gotten lost. He told me it wasn't a problem and to go to bed so that we could start fresh the following morning.
Once in the room, we both crashed. It had literally been the Worse.Travel.Day.Ever.Period. Driving along several terrible roads, getting lost multiple times, plus not being able to speak or communicate well enough in French equates to a horrible day that I hope to never again repeat.
I have two pieces of advice to offer from this very horrible day:
The first is to always enter the exact address of the destination in your navigation system; if there are multiple cities with the same name, make sure to choose the one with the correct zip code. Otherwise, you might end
up like us and drive two hours in the wrong direction.
The second is that if your navigation systems instructs you to turn onto a dirt or gravel road, don't do it. Period. Unless you have a 4WD vehicle and unless you enjoy stressful situations, it's probably not the best idea. Just continue along the road that you are on and I promise you that the navigation system will eventually find an alternative route. Too bad we didn't learn these things sooner!
Day 11 (Monday, September 7, 2009)
After a very rough night, I woke up feeling determined that today would be much better than the day before. After getting ready, we headed downstairs in order to eat breakfast. We were a little excited for breakfast at Le Petit Versailles as we had read that they offered a full English breakfast instead of the common bread and jam one that everyone else served in France. Fortunately, the reality lived up to the hype as there was quite a few options to choose from; we had hard-boiled eggs, cheese, a tart of some sort, a sweet thick cream (similar to crème brulee), strawberries, freshly-squeezed orange juice,
With it's castle in the background
and of course, bread, jam, and butter. While we were eating, I asked Jean Claude (one of the owners) if he could help us make a reservation for an 18:30 foie gras tour later that evening. Thankfully, he obliged as I had no desire to be speaking French on the phone again after the debacle the night before.
From the hotel, we drove about two minutes into Beynac. We were running slightly behind schedule, so we were only able to walk around the city for a few minutes and check out their very small farmer’s market. All of the buildings within the town were made of the most beautiful warm honey-colored stone that lit-up gorgeously when the sun shined down upon it. We had also wanted to tour Beynac’s Château, but we figured we would have to fit that in on another day as there wasn’t enough time that particular morning.
Next, we drove to Domme, which although larger in size and population than Beynac, was still quite a small town on its own accord. We had read that it was best to visit Domme either early in the morning or in the evening in order to take
advantage of the beautiful views from atop the viewpoint. Another thing that our books pointed out was that Domme tends to be frequented by tour groups, so after 11:00, the small town is usually inundated with people. The views from the viewpoint were amazing, and spanned a great distance over the river and the surrounding farmland. We also walked through town for about 30 minutes, enjoying the quiet backstreets and the small but beautiful details, such as flowers dangling from baskets or stone facades slowly crumbling away.
After Domme, we headed to Castelnaud, where I planned on touring Château de Castelnaud.
We were able to see the gorgeous chateau as we drove up into the city, and we pulled over at one point so that I could get a great shot. Mike opted to stay in the car as he had no desire to see the château, especially since it was so hot out that day. The château is a medieval fortress that was originally built to face its rival, the Château de Beynac. While I found the exterior of the château to be beautiful, especially when the creamy stone contrasted against the bright blue sky, I
found the interior to be rather dull and uninteresting. I did find it odd however that while none of the exhibits had English listings, all of the videos that were playing throughout the many rooms (I saw at least three videos) had English subtitles. During my time at the château, the temperature really began to increase, and by the time I left, it was scorching outside.
Next, we drove to another tiny town along the Dordogne river called La Roque-Gageac. This was probably, in my opinion, the most picturesque village of all those that we visited in the region. While it had a good number of tourists, plenty of charm was still oozing from its stone walls and narrow back alleyways. We had hoped on renting a canoe from a company in this town, having them drive us up to Vitrac, and then paddling the canoe back downstream to La Roque-Gageac.
Before heading off and finding this company however, we decided to find a place to eat lunch at, as we were both quite hungry. We found several cafes, but ending up selecting La Palmier due to its reasonably priced entrees. I ordered Croque Madame (hot ham and
cheese grilled sandwich with a fried egg on top) while Mike chose a ham omelet. Both entrees came with fries and salad. When the food arrived, we were both shocked at the large portion sizes; neither one of us were sure we were going to be able to finish all of it. All of the food was great, especially the delicious salad dressing and the very crispy but not so greasy fries.
After finishing lunch, we went out in hopes of finding a canoe company called Canoe-Dordogne. Initially, we looked in the wrong area, but eventually we found the company. Unfortunately, when I asked them about the possibility of having them driving us up to the town of Vitrac, and us finishing in La Roque-Gageac, they explained that their route was from La Roque-Gageac to Château des Milandes; no other options were available. We were also informed that on average, it took most people about two hours to paddle to Château des Milandes. I was very disappointed to hear this news, as we had only wanted to spend an hour maximum on the canoe ride since we had several other things to do that day, one of which (the
foie gras tour) was at a specific time.
Instead, we turned around, and decided to buy tickets for a gabarre boat ride though a company called Gabarre Norbert.
A gabarre is a flat-bottomed boat that was once used on the Dordogne for transporting goods between the Massif Central and the ports of Bergerac, Libourne and Bordeaux. Even though I was very sad I wouldn’t be able to participate in a canoe ride, I knew that I would be able to obtain at least a few great shots of the villages from the seat of the gabarre boat.
After purchasing our tickets for the boat ride, we had to wait about 30 minutes until the next boat departed. As a result, we had to wait outside in the very hot sun. While Mike attempted to find some shade to keep cool, I stayed out in the full sun as I was the first in line and didn't want to lose our spot.
When the boat finally arrived, I was beginning to sweat, but was happy that we got a somewhat decent spot on the boat with partial shade. The ticket price included the use of an
audio-guide in English, as there was live narration in French. When the boat ride began, we both attempted to listen to our audio-guides, but it was much too difficult to listen to with the French commentary blaring overhead .
After we had sat down, I had noticed that the boat was filled with mostly older people, which felt very strange as we were definitely the youngest. While most of them were probably not physically capable to paddle a canoe, we obviously were, so I felt a bit embarrassed as I wondered if they thought that we were just lazy. As the boat made its way down the river, I saw many people in canoes and thought to myself that we should be out there with them; I was still very disappointed that we hadn't been able to rent a canoe.
On the bright side however, I was able to get quite a few awesome shots of the passing scenery and of La Roque-Gageac and Château de Castelnaud in the distance. As I sat there in my seat photographing the passing sights, I literally began to sweat my ass off. In fact, it got so bad that most of
my lower half was drenched in sweat, which was quite obvious with the shorts I was wearing. Even Mike looked down at my pants and was shocked at how much I was perspiring; it was beyond disgusting and mortifying. I just hoped it would all dry before we got off of the boat!
Thankfully, my shorts were nearly dry by the time we arrived back in La Roque-Gageac. We took a few more photos, and then headed on our way.
Our next stop was the market town of Sarlat, which is known throughout France as being one of the most beautiful and charming towns. It is also quite famous for its markets, which are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays (we would visit a few days later). Sarlat is currently on France's tentative list for future nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I have no doubt that it will eventually be placed on that list. As we drove into town from La Roque-Gageac, we were both surprised to see the amount of commercial buildings that spread away from the historical city center of Sarlat. For some reason, I had envisioned Sarlat as being a small little village,
but with a population of nearly 10,000, it truly is a full-blown city.
After parking our car at a meter along the edge of the historic core, we walked into town and completed Rick Steves "Welcome to Sarlat" tour. Sarlat isn't a city full of major sights, but we did see everything of importance on our walk, including Place du Peyrou, the Cathedral of St. Sacerdos, Lantern of the Dead, Place de la Liberte, Place des Oies, and Rue de la Republique. The real allure of Sarlat is its traffic-free cobblestone lanes that are anchored by the most beautiful honey-colored stone buildings. Sarlat is truly a photographers delight, especially immediately after sunrise and during sunset, as the sun lights up those warm-colored buildings gloriously. Nearly every single building was in amazing condition, thanks in great part to a former Minister of Culture named André Malraux who initiated massive restoration programs throughout the town during the 1960's. So many of the streets in town were lined with gift shops, of course, with the most frequent being stores that specialized in foie gras. Sarlat would be the perfect town to base yourself from if one was relying on public transportation.
After enjoying a few hours in Sarlat, we headed back to our bed and breakfast in Beynac, first stopping at a grocery store to stock up on more snacks for the car.
We quickly drove to the bed and breakfast, where we freshened up and then headed right back out in order to arrive on-time for our 18:30 tour at a foie gras farm called Elevage du Bouyssou.
Unfortunately, we ended up getting lost on our way to the farm as we did not have a real address with us, just simple directions listed in Rick Steves guidebook. After attempting to rely on a lack of signage and the books limited directions, Mike stopped in a small town and asked for better directions from someone working at a bar. Thankfully, the guy who helped Mike knew exactly where the farm was, so we were able to find the place less than five minutes later.
Although we had arrived ten minutes later than our 18:30 tour time, the lady made it seem as though it was no big deal. Thankfully, we were the only ones on the tour, so I was happy that no one had been standing
around waiting for us.
Foie gras is a French delicacy that is made made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been purposely fattened. The production of French foie gras is viewed by many around the world as being highly controversial due to the force feeding procedure. Several countries have gone so far as to enact laws against the force feeding or even sale of foie gras. Many of the foie gras farms in the Dordogne region use a process called la gavage in order to force-feed the geese, which generally takes two to three seconds to complete. Enthusiasts of this technique say that the animal is in absolutely no pain when the force feeding occurs, because their large gullet and expandable liver is naturally designed to take in a large quantity of food at once. Also, the geese apparently do not have gag-reflexes and the lining of their throats are very tough, so much so that they sometimes naturally swallow rocks in order to help break-down and grind food that they have consumed. That being said, however, many people view the entire process as cruel and inhumane. Prior to our visit, I wasn't quite sure
which viewpoint to take, but I was sure that I would be better able to form an opinion after visiting a farm for myself.
Our tour guide was named Nathalie, who happened to be the wife of the goose farmer. The business had been passed down through the family for several generations, and it was plainly obvious that they were both immensely proud of their work. Nathalie took us all over the farm and explained in great detail the different stages and processes that are involved with having a foie gras farm. I found it fascinating but also highly respectable that they they use every part of the goose except for the heads and feet.
We were eventually brought into one of the barns to witness the nightly feeding. There were several hundred geese in the barn, but they each had a relatively decent sized pen to walk around in (and definitely 1000 times better conditions than most chickens in the US have to live in). The geese were making all sorts of noise in the barn, but Nathalie explained that it was because they did not know or recognize us, and that the presence of anyone else
other than her husband made them nervous. She stated that when her husband completes the la gavage technique that all of the geese are very calm and quiet; however, based on how the geese were reacting when we were there, I wasn't sure whether or not to believe that.
She also showed us other pens dispersed through the property where younger geese are held until it is their time to go into the barn. Prior to arriving at the barn, the geese are allowed to walk, run, or do whatever they want within their penned-in area, which was huge. I'm not a vegetarian, but I struggle everyday with the fact that I eat meat. It's always made worse for me because I know that the majority of animals raised for food in the US have a terrible quality of life and live in horrific conditions. However, seeing that these geese were at least able to enjoy complete freedom for the majority of their short lives made me very happy.
At the conclusion of the tour, Nathalie brought us into her shop, where we were shown the different type of foie gras that her farm produces. We weren't required
to purchase anything, although common sense implied that we should. Neither of us had ever tried foie gras, and although we had heard nothing but wonderful and amazing things about it, we were hesitant to buy any based on the expensive cost. In the end, we settled on buying the smallest can (smaller than a can of cat food) of the highest quality foie gras, which cost 18 Euro ($27 USD). To date, we still haven't opened the can as we hope to do so when we have several people over for dinner in case we don't actually like it ourselves!
Afterward, we drove back to Beynac, where we once again proceeded to get lost. Considering the number of times we had had driving issues over the last two days, I wanted to blow my brains out. Luckily, we found our way before I had to take action upon myself!
Once back in Beynac, we headed into town in order to find a place to eat at for dinner. After consulting with our guidebooks, we settled on a place called Hotel du Chateau
due to its positive recommendation and decent prices. After being seated inside, we
conferred with the menus for a bit before making any decision. We decided to make the same call that we had at the restaurant back in the Loire Valley and had Mike order the menu (soup, appetizer, entree, and dessert) while I only ordered an entree. We figured this would not only help cut-down on costs but also allow us to try several items on the menu. Mike chose a plate of local ham and melon as his appetizer, Stuffed Pork with Local Cèpe Mushrooms Sauce as his entree, and Caramelised Upside-down Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream for dessert. Since I was craving pasta, I ordered the Tagliatelli Pasta Perfumed with Basil Oil.
The first item that arrived at our table was Mike's massive pot soup, which was a creamy orange-colored vegetable puree. It was so surprisingly delicious and refreshing; our server informed us that there was ten different vegetables in that soup, so Mike and I spent a good deal of time trying to determine which ones they were! Mike's plate of ham was also good so I made sure to assist him in eating. Next, our entrees were delivered. My pasta was yummy and the pesto-cream
sauce really hit the spot with my craving, although I was quite full afterward. Mike's pork dish also arrived with some very tasty garlic-infused potatoes and green beans, which I made sure to help myself to. Finally, nearly two hours after arriving at the restaurant, the dessert was placed on our table. This is the one dish that I can't remember raving too much about, although it was good. By that point though, I was truly too full to really enjoy eating anything.
We were so ready to hit the pillows after yet another two hour dining experience in France. While I know the French enjoy their long dinner meals, when you are traveling for a long period of time, those long meals tend to get become quite annoying very quickly. I think that is one of the reasons why we so often buy just materials to make sandwiches with; there are just some nights when you have absolutely no desire to spend two hours sitting in a restaurant! Luckily for us though, this night wasn't one of them and we were very happy to have found such a great restaurant so close to our bed and breakfast.
Day 12 (Tuesday, September 8, 2009)
We awoke to yet another gloriously sunny day in Beynac. We headed down to breakfast a little earlier than the day before. Initially, we sat by ourselves for the first 15 minutes until four of the other guests arrived. We began talking with the other guests, and found out that the couple was from Ontario, Canada and the other two women were cousins, one which lived in Las Vegas and the other in Missouri. We learned that the cousins had just bought a 175 year-old farmhouse in Indiana and were planning on opening up a bed and breakfast; I found that quite awesome and very interesting. We continued to talk, exchanging our nightmare stories of driving in Europe, and I filled them all in on our night from hell two days prior.
From breakfast, we quickly headed out the door and were on our way. Today, the theme was all about prehistoric cave art (more specifically, Cro-Magnon Caves), which the Dordogne region of France is quite famous for. Our first stop was the town of Montignac, the location where it was required to purchase tickets for Lascaux II,
one of the most well-known caves in the area. For some strange reason, Lascaux does not actually sell tickets at the sight. Instead, it is absolutely required that everyone visit the nearby La Billeterie (ticket office) in Montignac in order to purchase the tickets. When we arrived, we requested an English tour, and were informed that the next one started at 11:50. I had assumed that we would be able to get in right away, so this slightly threw off our planned schedule for the day. However, I accepted the time as I did not want to pay 17 Euros for a tour I wouldn’t be able to understand (naturally, the French tours depart much more regularly through the day than do the English ones).
As a result, we instead drove to La Roque St. Christophe,
which was located about 20 minutes away from Montignac. La Roque St. Christophe is a series of five terraces that are carved into a limestone hillside along the Vezere River. These natural caves were occupied by cave dwellers for more than 50,000 years. Researchers believe that people initially began settling up in these caves as a way to stay safe from
the Viking raiders who would often sail up and down the river. The current exhibit is set-up to appear as it did during the medieval period, so no prehistoric art is on display. We arrived immediately after the monument had opened, so we were one of the first people in the quiet caves. The lady at the ticket counter was nice enough to let us borrow a copy of the English guide booklet, which we normally would have had to pay two Euros to buy. We both had a great time wandering through the very narrow but long caves (nearly one kilometer long). It was fascinating to be able to see the many holes placed along the back wall of the cave, which had been carved out of the rock thousands of years ago to be used for placing wood beams into.
From La Roque St. Christophe, we drove for just a few minutes until we reached the tiny village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, which is listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.
We had no plans in this town, except to simply stroll its streets and for me to capture some of its quaint beauty
Next, we drove over to Lascaux II. Some of the world’s most famous cave paintings are hidden below the surface from all to see at Lascaux. Lascaux is known for its Paleolithic cave paintings which are estimated to be at least 16,000 years old. These magnificent caves were discovered at random one day in 1940 by a group of teenagers and their dog. It wasn't until 1948 that the general public was allowed to come and visit the caves, but by 1963, the caves had closed its doors to all visitors. The carbon dioxide produced by all of those visitors over that 15 year period had done more damage to the paintings than 15,000 years of regular life had. As a result, the idea for Lascaux II was born, in which a completely replicated cave would be created nearby which could accommodate thousands of visitors every year. The new cave contains 90 percent of the paintings found at the original one, and is said to appear exactly as though the paintings at Lascaux do. When we arrived at Lascaux II, we were surprised to see the massive group of people also waiting for the next English tour.
In all, it appeared as though 40-50 of us were herded into the cave together for the 11:50 tour. In all honestly, while the tour was extremely informative, it seemed a bit rushed and way too cramped for us to be able to fully enjoy it. In addition, while we knew what we were looking at was an exact replica, it just didn’t have any of the splendors that the “real” caves we would later visit in the day had.
After finishing at Lascaux II, we both noticed that we were quite hungry. Since we had about two hours to kill until our next pre-scheduled cave tour, we decided to find a place to have lunch at. There were several nearby cities to choose from, including Montignac, Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, and Les Eyzies. We went with Montignac, since we had driven to the city a few hours prior and were comfortable with it, and also because it was a large enough city that we figured would have plenty of dining options.
After parking the car in the central part of town, we walked through several streets, eying many different restaurants, until we finally selected one called Les Pilotis for its
inexpensive pizza options. Although we had eaten terrible pizza a few nights prior in Chinon, I was hoping that the second pizza experience would be better. When we walked into the small restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see that its décor was quite cute (I classified it as being the definition of “shabby chic”). We found a table to sit down at, and then proceeded to wait over ten minutes until one of the very frazzled-looking waitresses finally came over and brought us menus. I decided to go with the cheese pizza, while Mike choose one called “Mexican” which came with a strange topping combination of pepperoni, corn, green peppers, tomatoes, and egg. The pizzas came out quickly enough, but unfortunately, they were not the thin crust Italian version that we had been hoping for. On the bright side, they did taste a lot better than the ones we had eaten a few nights prior, but they still weren’t all that great. Oh well; at least the meal had been cheap (less than 15 Euro) and had filled us up.
From lunch, we drove to Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, another cave famous for its Cro-Magnon art. The big difference
however between this one and Lascaux was that Font-de-Gaume has its original caves still open to the general public. That being said, if you want to tour Font-de-Gaume, you absolutely must make reservations in advance via email or by telephone, since the site only allows a maximum of 180 visitors per day (in increments of 12 per tour), absolutely no exceptions made. Font-de-Gaume contains paintings of 230 animals which are said to be about 15,000 years old. We were told via email to arrive 30 minutes ahead of our scheduled tour time, but when we arrived we were able to pick-up our tickets in about two seconds, so the 30 minute window was really unnecessary.
From the ticket office, we had to walk up a very steep hill in the blazing heat, which was none too fun. We then proceeded to wait 45 minutes for our tour began (we had arrived extra early). As others began to show up for our tour, we noticed that we were all English speakers, so we wondered if our tour would be in English (we had assumed it would be in French). Instead of the maximum 12 visitors per tour, there was only
six of us, which was quite a nice treat from the massive group we had had to contend with at Lascaux. When our tour guide arrived, the first words out of her mouth were “good afternoon” so we knew we would be on an English tour. Aside from her greeting however, the first thing all of us noticed was her extremely loud, deep, and booming voice, which completely startled both Mike and I; her voice was so deep it sounded almost unnatural, for a women or even a man.
As I attempted to quiet Mike’s laughter after having heard the deep voice, we proceeded to go inside. Our 45 minute tour spanned only 100 yards, but because there was so few of us, the guide was able to point out dozens and dozens of the paintings, which they normally do not have enough time for. The guide was obviously very passionate about the caves and the historical significance they played in this world. Throughout the cave, many of the paintings had been covered by the “white disease” (aka calcium) and were not visible to our eyes, although the guide knew exactly where they were all located.
walked through the caves, I thought and wondered to myself that if the caves as Lascaux had been closed over 40 years ago after major deterioration had occurred from visitors, then why was Font-de-Gaume still allowing visitors inside (albeit on a limited basis)? I asked the guide if the small number of visitors each day had had any negative impact on the paintings. She hesitated before answering my question, but in her broken and very thick-accented English, I was able to understand that she personally desired to see the caves be closed permanently. In the last few years, there had been different sections of the cave that had been closed off without notice due to a build-up of calcium. In fact, they have computer systems placed throughout the cave that are monitored on a daily basis by scientists to see if there are any changes with the calcium level. If there is a moderate change, they will request that that certain section be closed indefinitely, until a reversal of change can been seen. She also brought up the fact that many of the paintings we were viewing that day might be completely gone in the next 20-30 years if the
caves continued to operate Although the paintings were truly spectacular to see in person, I personally believe that they all should be closed to the general public so that they can have the possibility of being conserved for many more centuries to come, which will be a large enough obstacle on its own.
From Font-de-Gaume, we drove to our last cave of the day Grotte de Rouffignac.
Unlike the other prehistoric caves of the area, at Rouffignac, all visitors board a small train and ride it down into the cave along the riverbed, seeing only ½ mile of the total six miles of cave. These paintings, while still ridiculously old, are a little younger than the other two, being just 13,000 years old. They were only formally discovered in 1956, but had technically been visited by locals since the 18th century. We had read that the entire tour would be done in French, so when our guide began switching back and forth between English and French, we were pleasantly surprised. Along our very cold ride, we saw a variety of images, from a woolly mammoth etching made by fingernails to a series of rhinoceroses to a large
herd of a variety of mammoths. Again, like at Font-de-Gaume, I wondered why they continued to allow visitors to tour these caves when it was obvious that the curators were continuing to have problems keeping the calcite from covering the paintings.
After our very long day of sightseeing, we began the 45 minute drive back to Beynac. Along the way, we stopped off at a grocery store in Sarlat in order to buy items for our chosen meal of the night; sandwiches, which tends to be the theme on days when we need to save money. We took our purchased food back to Beynac, where we had an indoor picnic in our room.
Day 13 (Wednesday, September 9, 2009)
We arrived to breakfast about 30 minutes later than we had originally planned, and ended up taking even longer as we struck up another conversation with the same guests we had the morning before.
Our first stop of the day was Sarlat, as we had wanted to visit their famed Wednesday market. Unfortunately, several miles outside of the city center, traffic was at a complete stop, so it took about five times as long to
reach the town as it would have on any other day. Luckily, when we finally arrived near the market, we were able to find a parking spot almost immediately.
Once out of the car, we realized we were directly next to the start of the market, and before our eyes, we could see that the market was incredibly massive, and stretched out along many of Sarlat’s streets. The amount of people that were at the market was beyond ridiculous; we both estimated that there had to have been at least 1,000 people crammed into every square inch of the streets. The crowds made visiting the market almost unbearable, as it was difficult to even be able to see any of the vendors or their products, without bumping into or stepping on someones toes. What we did see of the market however, we did enjoy. There was a huge variety of food to purchase, including sausages, fruits, vegetables, spices, breads, pastries, cheese, nuts, wine, and foie gras, just to name a few. As we passed by one of the fruit stands, the most unbelievably delicious aroma of sweet strawberries caught the attention of our noses, so we made sure to
buy some, knowing that it might be some of the last fresh strawberries we would eat for the rest of the year. After about 20 minutes of walking around, we had had enough of the shuffling between hundreds of other people, so we headed out.
For the rest of the day, we had planned on visiting small towns and villages of the Eastern Dordogne. The first town we stopped in at was Carennac,
which is a small village perched next to the Dordogne Rriver. As we approached the town, my bladder all of a sudden began screaming at me, which I found quite peculiar (as I hadn’t drank that much liquid that morning) but also very urgent. I told Mike to park wherever he could, and that we would have to run into the closest restaurant and have an early lunch so that I could use the restroom. For a town of its small size, I assumed that it would not have a public restroom to use.
After parking the car, the first restaurant we saw was La Petite Vigne,
so I quickly walked inside. After relieving myself and feeling about 1000 times better,
we sat down to look at the menu. Since it was a small place, they did not have an al a carte menu, but they did offer a three course lunch for 11.50 Euro. I ended up selecting the quiche maison (house quiche), the faux fillet with fries and salad, and the gateau Basque. Mike went with salade de melon and jambon, the salmon with fries and salad, and also chose the gateau Basque for dessert. While the service was very slow, we were quite patient as it was only a two man show. The food more than made up for the long wait time, however. Although it was all simple food, the flavors were perfect and the attention to detail was very evident. I really enjoyed the gateau Basque, which was an extremely dense and moist cake that had an overwhelming (but very delicious) almond flavor.
After finishing lunch, we walked around Carennac for about 20 minutes, photographing as many of the beautiful buildings as I possibly could. Along the way, we did find some public restrooms which could have come in handy earlier; however, these restrooms had no soap or toilet paper, and they were filled with
icky spiders. Thanks, but no thanks!
From Carennac, we headed to the next town of Loubressac. This small village, just like Carennac, appeared to have also come directly from a postcard. Loubressac was situated atop a ridge that provided commanding views of the surrounding countryside. It was slightly smaller than the first village, so it only took us about 15 minutes to walk through all of its quaint and flower-filled streets. Along the way, I made a kitty friend, which seemed to be a trend for me in France.
Next up, we planned on touring Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux.
However, by this point I didn’t really care about seeing the interior of any more chateau, so I decided to instead just photograph its unique dark red exterior from a distance.
From the Chateau, we drove on to another village called Autoire. This town could also easily compete with both Loubressac and Carennac for the title of most beautiful village in France. Although it was absolutely scorching hot out, we made sure to walk down as many of the back streets as we could, paying close attention to all of the gorgeous details.
Next, we headed to
the more well-known town of Rocamadour
Parts of this popular town were literally built directly into the massive rock wall, which sits above a very expansive gorge. Before tourism ever existed in France, Rocamadour was famous during medieval times as a pilgrimage town for its sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We had read that the town was most recommended to visit after dark, but unfortunately we arrived too early to see this. Instead, we parked the car high above the church in a free parking lot, and then decided to pay 8 Euros for both of us to be able to use a very pricey elevator that would bring us down to the entrance level of the church. We were feeling quite lazy that afternoon and didn't want to have to walk up and down several hundred stairs!
Immediately, I was unimpressed with the city. It was filled with tourists, although it wasn’t necessarily overly-crowded. The streets were lined with lots of tacky shops catering to the tourists and many of the buildings lacked the character that so many other towns were normally filled with. I really honestly didn’t see what the hype was about this
place; maybe we should have planned our day better and visited after dark when the city was lit up. However, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this place as a stopover for anyone visiting France; its just really not that interesting nor worthwhile.
From Rocamadour, we drove about an hour and 15 minutes until we reached Beynac. After quickly freshening at the hotel, we drove into town. We decided to eat dinner at the same restaurant we had two nights prior, Hotel du Chateau, simply because of the delicious food and large portion sizes we had experienced. On our second visit, we ordered the soup again, tonight's offering being a tomato soup. When I ordered the soup, I tried to explain that we would split a single order as our appetizer. After we ordered, Mike brought up the point that they may charge us for two soups since I sort of requested two plates. I hoped this wouldn’t be the case, as it was 7 Euro (about $10 USD) per order. For entrees, Mike ordered the same basil pasta I had two nights prior, and I chose the cote boeuf (similar to prime rib) with pan roasted potatoes and vegetables. The
soup was absolutely delicious, very simple but definitely tasty. The portion size was the same as Mike’s single order had been the night before, so I was still hoping we would only be charged for one order. Our entrees were also delicious, the pasta actually tasting slightly better than it had the first time around! Although the steak was good and the potatoes rich and buttery, I decided to exchange plates with Mike half-way through dinner since the pasta was so yummy!
When it finally came time for our bill to arrive, Mike made sure to check for the double charge on the soup, and sure enough, there were two charges for soup. A part of me had wanted to raise a little stink and explain that I had requested to split the order, but I didn’t want to make a ruckus, especially since it might have been mandatory to charge for two entrees if people “shared it”. Oh well, lesson learned for next time; if we want only one appetizer, order it as though only one of us wants it, and then we can share it together ourselves.
As we went to bed that night, I was
actually quite sad knowing that we would be leaving the beautiful Dordogne the following morning. Aside from the stress we encountered driving into the region, we had had the most wonderful and relaxing time and wished that we had been able to spend more time exploring the region further.
There are more photos below