Dithering and Dawdling in the Dordogne: Chateaux, Gardens and Crepes

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To be honest, by the time we arrive in the Dordogne I’ve become just a little disenchanted with France. I’d forgotten about their ‘extra-long lunch’ and ‘half day closing on Sunday’ shop hours and the ‘no toilet seats’ and ‘mixed shower blocks’ in campsites, which is the norm. The motorway tolls are extortionate, as is the price of diesel and a coffee, and the weather has turned cool as we head from Switzerland to Annecy. We stay a couple of nights in Annecy (very pretty and I will remember my first banana and chocolate crepe), and then we head north to visit friends in the Burgundy region, where the daytime temperature dips to a cool 11 degrees.

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Annecy

It’s lovely to have some company and we spend a very pleasant evening in their beautifully restored house in the rural village of Recey-sur- Ource (sounds rude, I know). The next day we travel south again stopping over near Clermont-Ferrand.  Our next stop is near Sarlat-le-Canéda in the Dordogne Valley. We are on our way to Spain, but as we settle into the campsite, the sun comes out and the pretty countryside reveals itself. The weather forecast here is surprisingly good for the next 10 days, but we’re meant to be heading to south. So, here’s my dilemma….do we stay, or do we go? I dither. The more I explore the area, the more I’m tempted to stay. But if we don’t go now, we will have less time to spend in Spain. I know this sounds like a lovely dilemma to be in, and I do realise how privileged I am to be in this position, but it’s these type of decisions (where it doesn’t really matter, but it feels like it does – remember the spice jar dilemma I had when packing up the house), that I struggle with. John’s “this is your year, I don’t care where we go, so you choose”, isn’t helping and of course I know, there is no right or wrong decision in these circumstances. So that makes the dithering worse. And then I realise that staying in the Dordogne feels like I’m not making a decision and sometimes the most difficult decisions are to do nothing (or very little). But when I let go of the ‘you don’t have to be travelling like mad to have an adventure’ logic, I realise it makes perfect sense to stay. So, we stay, and I unwind from travelling and let myself dawdle in the Dordogne for just a little bit longer.

Over the next 10 days we stay at 2 campsites, only 10 miles apart. We walk, cycle, paddle and swim visiting pretty Les Plus Beaux villages (small rural villages with a rich cultural heritage), towering Chateaux and beautiful gardens. Our first campsite is within walking distance of Sarlat-La-Canéda, the capital of Périgord Noir, which is home to a plethora of gastronomic duck-based products (the contentious Foie Gras, Canard Terrine and smoked duck breast to name but a few) and boasts the regions best-preserved medieval architecture. We start our exploration of Sarlat with a…. yes, you guessed it, a crepe and a cup of tea. Savoury for John and banana and chocolate for me.

                      The Medieval streets of Sarlat-La-Canéda

There’s a busker singing medieval folk tunes with his Hurdy Gurdy in front of the Cathedral St-Sacerdos, and I’m reminded of this area’s intertwined history with England. The city of Sarlat fell into the hand of the English for 10 years during the 100 Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries. John finds a spot in the shade while I explore this small city with its twisting alleyways and back streets, full of shops selling local produce and handicrafts.

                     Sarlat-La-Canéda

I get the bike out and explore the country roads and John manages a few flattish miles. It’s the first time on a bike since he broke his collarbone, and another step forward in his recovery. It has been a long hot summer in central and southern France and the earth is dry here. Dust bellows from the tractor as the farmer ploughs his parched fields. Plump purple grapes drape from the roadside vines, blackened sunflowers hang their heads ready to be harvested and golden corn stretches towards the blue skies. Fig, plum, pear and walnut trees line the country roads. A bandy-legged old lady wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket of vegetables beams at me as I cycle past her, “Bonjour” she says. This is the rural France I love……simple, slow paced, picturesque.

                     Roadside vines and golden corn

I cycle to Domme, and La Roque-Gageac (also Les Plus Beaux villages). Domme, situated on an outcrop above the Dordogne has one of the area’s best preserved Bastides, and retains its original 13th century ramparts. The lonely planet guide describes the approach road ‘as a tortuous switchback’, so I opt to walk the last kilometre up a forest path with my bike. The panoramic views across the Dordogne valley, when I finally get to the top (very sweaty and pink faced) are stunning.

                     The picturesque streets of Domme and views from the top

La Roque-Gageac, Domme’s alter ego, is crammed into a limestone cliff face and the river meanders alongside its picturesque main street.

                     La Roque-Gageac

Later in the week we hire a canoe from the village, which is another test of John’s recovery. I’m in the driving seat but after managing to paddle the canoe several 360s, in both directions, John takes over pole position and we enjoy the rest of our paddle up and down this idyllic river.

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Canoeing on the Dordogne

Either side of the Dordogne the hilltops are studded with defensive chateaux, their strategic positions being greatly coveted by both the French and the English in the 100 Years War.  At our 2nd campsite we are gifted with an amazing view of Château de Beynac, a 12th century fortress. Early morning balloon rides glide gracefully across the idyllic scene.

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Château de Beynac, view from the campsite

We visit Château de Beynac, protected by 200m cliffs (quiet a climb), double walls and a moat. This impressive castle was a key defensive position for the French and once the home of Richard “The Lion Heart”, Lords of Beynac and Baronies of the Périgord. Just below the castle the charming village of Beynac-et-Cazenac nestles amongst the steep cliffside and I am rewarded with a honey and walnut crepe and an iced tea after my steep climb up.

Less than 6km away Beynac’s neighbouring rival, Château de Castelnaud, loyal to the English in the 100 Years war, looms impressively on the southern banks of the Dordogne. Despite these 2 Chateaux being close rivals, they never fought head to head. The Chateau houses The Museum of Medieval Warfare, an important collection of weapons and armour. Along the bastion, the most powerful siege machine from the Middle ages, the Trebuchet, has been recreated and looms on the skyline. Les Plus Beaux Village of Castlenaud-la-Chapelle sits below, and another crepe awaits. If there was a battle of the Crepes, I’m afraid Beynac would win hands down!

                      Château de Castelnaud        

The Aquitaine region of France is famous for its gardens and I visit 2 during our time here. The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, the most visited in the region, are but a short walk away from our campsite. Famous for its terraces of 150,000 boxwoods, carefully hand-sheared to creating a spectacular topiary display above the Dordogne countryside. Beyond the boxwoods, on Marqueyssac’s rocky spur, ‘the Belvedere’, an exposed cliff 180 m above the Dordogne, awards some extraordinary views. Oaks, Maples and Hornbeams make for a lovely return woodland walk. And for those who like their tea (that’s me), the gardens ‘salon de thé’ serves a homemade iced tea and a Tarte aux noix de Périgueux (walnut tart), a speciality of the region. A definite must not miss!

The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, view from The Belvedere

Les Jardin D’eau, near Carsac- Aillac, also on the banks of the river Dordogne was created in 1999 and displays a rare collection of aquatic plants on what was once an old Gallo-Roman site. Filled with basins, pools, ponds, streams and waterfalls, the flowers and plants on display here are exquisite. I dawdle around the gardens for a couple of hours and take lots of photographs. I spot a few very handsome green frogs hopping across the lily pads. I do like a nice garden.

                      Aquatic plants of Les Jardin D’eau

On our last day a westerly wind whips curled brown oak leaves and the acorns still donned in their bowler hats across our paths. Autumn is coming and it is time for us to move to sunnier climes. I have so enjoyed my Dawdling in the Dordogne and for now the Dithering has gone.

 

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