Week in the Dordogne

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December 27th 2018
Published: May 13th 2019
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Lately I’ve been reading blogs from people that write while they are travelling or straight away when they get back. And it really makes a difference. The places visited, the people met, and the travel experiences are much more evocative, and funny too. I used to write while travelling, and then, mostly because I started taking shorter holidays, I only wrote when I got back. Now, I am writing the next installment of our last holiday, more than 6 months later, so I hope I will still be able to convey something of the magic of our week in the Dordogne and hope to write about my travels in a more timely fashion in the future.
Basing ourselves in lovely Sarlat for a week, we went out on trips every day, mostly driving no further than 90 minutes in any direction and making lots of stops to visit a village, take in a view, go to a market, maybe a castle or chateux, completely spoiled for choice. On our first night in Sarlat, we ate a really good dinner and afterwards we walked off some of it in the rain through the medieval streets of the village. There was nobody around as we trod carefully over the rain slicked cobble stones, making our way through the dimly lit lanes, it was sort of thrilling and also a bit creepy. At one stage we found ourselves at the back of the church in a small dark graveyard of ancient unmarked mounds. Completely alone. I found myself looking over my shoulder more than once.
The next day, after a good breakfast in our apartment, we were ready to start exploring. The weather was quite good, sunny most of the day and as the forecast for the rest of the week wasn’t so good we wanted to make the most of it. So after a much too short visit around the pretty village of Beynac, we continued on, without visiting the castle, to the beautiful gardens of Marqueyssac. We walked to the Belvedere lookout with views over the Dordogne valley and La Roque Gageac, a village with ochre colored houses built into the cliffside.
There are a 150,000 boxwood bushes carved into different shapes, mostly round, like flocks of sheep. The gardens were planted in 1860 and the slow growing bushes are trimmed entirely by hand at the end of the autumn and spring. There are views of many castles and villages from different vantage points. You can see the castles of Beynac and Castlenaud from the chateau. During the warm summer evenings the paths are lit up with thousands of candles.

We visited Château des Milandes on the way home. The American jazz singer, Josephine Baker, who was wildly popular in France, made her home there. The house has been turned into a museum which traces her life through her years as a star in Paris, member of the resistance during the second world war and her life in the castle with her tribe of 12 adopted children. Nevertheless, even though it was warmly recommended by many, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. There is a bird show several times a day in the summer. There was a huge owl with massive feet and talons, in a small cage, screeching loudly continuously, and flapping its enormous wings and an eagle facing the back of the cage which seemed to me in great distress. We didn’t stay for the show. An Instagram friend has written that these birds are mostly injured and have been rescued and rehabilitated, living for many years at the chateau, cared for by dedicated trainers. Evidently, the owl was screeching because he was eager to join the show. Seems I got it wrong.

Rocamadour, the second most visited place in France, was not my favorite trip. Even though it is very impressive! It was a stop on a medieval pilgrim’s route and the pilgrims would make their way up the steep cliffs of the canyon on their knees seeking redemption and cures for afflictions and disease. After admiring the views of the valley (you need 2 euro coins for the turnstile at the castle to get the best views), we walked down from the castle at the top to the second level of cathedrals and monasteries and finally down to the village at the bottom. We didn’t crawl up on our knees though, we took a cable car back to the car park at the top (2 actually because the cable cars are run by warring families).

The whole week we visited gorgeous villages, driving along largely deserted country roads, accompanied all the way by trees turning red, orange and yellow, farm houses entirely covered in ivy, ducks and geese seemingly content on free range farms, deep blue rivers with prehistoric troglodyte dwellings in the cliffs. Some of these sites were turned into more substantial shelters with walls and windows and used in medieval times. One of these is the Strong House of Reignac, maybe my favorite place in the Dordogne, a highlight of our trip.

Most of Reignac’s roof and back walls are built into the rock face. The walls were added in the 14th century and the windows in the 16th century. It is the best preserved manor house of its type in France. I just loved this place. It was so atmospheric. The fireplaces with wood burning, candle light and bread and vegetables on the kitchen table really added to the ambiance. It looks quite small from the outside but the inside is really very big. The house was occupied from the 15th century until the 20th century and the furnishing is from the last owners. It was closed up for many years until the Bordeaux local government acquired it, restored it and opened it to the public in 2006. It takes just 45 minutes to see it all, but don’t be hasty, take your time – it has a lot of hidden treasures and details and you can climb up to the lookouts on the top floors as well. They gave us a folder in English to guide us through – very helpful and full of information.

On the way out there is one more exhibition, not for the faint hearted. There is a sign that entry is forbidden to children. I thought there would be some medieval pornography concealed behind the red curtain but it was an exhibition of medieval instruments of torture. Quite detailed, and just in case your imagination fails you, there are detailed illustrations of how all the different exhibits were used. I fled about half way through.

All the villages we visited, seemed to have the designation of “one of the most beautiful villages in France” and really they were all lovely, so I will write about a few of our favorites. There was a lot of ivy clinging to the houses with leaves turning deep red and even in the late autumn there were pink roses climbing the walls. It was raining much of the time but mostly only lightly, and often cleared up completely in the afternoon. Unfortunately we arrived in Belves in the middle of a heavy rain storm and all we could do was try and wait it out under the roof of the 14th century covered market. The rain didn’t stop, so we made a quick trip around the bastide town’s little lanes and alleys, before moving on to our next destination.

We arrived in Monpazier about half an hour later, just as it started clearing up, and in time for the end of the market. Monpazier is another well preserved bastide town and a particularly pretty one. The town was once surrounded by thick defensive walls with six gates. Two gates remain and you enter the town through the north or south gate. The central market place has changed very little in the last 600 years and the square is surrounded by covered arcades, allowing for the market to take place in all weather. Out of season it is best to visit these small villages on the market day. If you visit on a normal day, you might find the village completely deserted, like we did at our next stop in Issigeac. In fact it looked like a ghost town, like the residents had fled a sudden disaster. Nevertheless, we had a nice walk around the streets, enjoying the novelty of being completely alone. Buildings are from the 13-16th century, many original half timbered buildings. Some of the buildings are leaning into each other for support. We passed some very pretty shops and tearooms but all were closed. Sunday morning is the time to visit, when the market is in full swing.

We were looking for something to do on a rainy day and decided to visit Hautefort chateau. It sits on a hill overlooking the Auvezere Valley and is surrounded by formal gardens and a maize, as well as a big park. Lucky for us, just as we got a view of the castle, the rain stopped, the sun broke through the clouds, and lit up the chateau. There are only about six rooms that are open to the public but the fabric and decoration is very grand and the furniture is beautifully made and maintained. There were signs everywhere not to take photos, and even though all the French were taking photos galor, I didn’t take any because sometimes I obey the rules, often I don’t, but this time I did. The village below the castle is also very nice and worth a walk around the streets. Some of the driving streets look to be almost too narrow for your car, better to park in the center and go by foot.

On the last day of our stay we drove to the nearby village of St. Cyprien for the Sunday market. There is a market every day of the week in different villages in the area and the vendors and farmers move from market to market. In the summer, there are food markets in the evenings too. After a week of visiting markets, we recognized quite a few of the vendors. We enjoyed all the French markets with their fresh vegetables, nuts and fruit, homemade food, cheese, patisserie, bread, honey, pates, wines, handicrafts and more.

The old town of St Cyprien winds its way up through crowded streets to the top where there is a 12thcentury abbey. Very nice houses, windows, doors, balconies and if you get to the top there are nice views over the Dordogne river. The entire town was decorated with plastic flowers. A vendor explained to me in broken English that there are a million flowers made by many people and next year there will be more, but I am not really sure what he said. As for the purpose or reason, we had a long conversation about it, but a combined effort of terrible French and awful English wasn’t enough to explain it. But we all had a good laugh and a lot of fun not understanding each other. Anyway, there sure were a lot of flowers, town was covered in them (see photos).

Looking at the photos and writing this makes me want to go back. Many years ago, I used to visit France quite a lot. This was our first visit in a long time and it was just as remembered – beautiful scenery, lovely villages, farms and castles, rivers and mountains and very nice people too. We finished with another night in Bordeaux and that brings this particular French holiday to an end.

Additional photos below
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Say cheese!Say cheese!
Say cheese!

Happy farmer selling his cheese at the Sunday market in St Cyprien

14th May 2019
The great hall

Ancient, historic and if the walls could tell stories.

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