Saturday 10th September 2011, Poitiers
Today has been lovely. It was hot and sunny this morning and we decided to spend an extra night here, giving us the opportunity to explore Poitiers, a place neither of us has visited before.
We drove in and parked Modestine down beside the pretty river Clain near an old water mill before climbing steeply up between winding streets of half-timbered houses, some dating back to the 15th century. At the top of the street stood the impressive Hotel Fumé, probably the most impressive mediaeval gothic building in Poitiers. It was built for a wealthy local family who had been mayors of the city back in the late 15th century.
There are many 15th and 16th century private residences around the town, mainly hidden behind high walls. Such lavish extravagance and wealth contrasts with the lot of the average citizens of the time. Such obvious signs of both wealth and poverty are to be found everywhere in France and it's not hard to understand the general discontent and sense of anger amongst the ordinary people that contributed to the outbreak of the Revolution.
Most of the buildings of note have been religious. There are some magnificent churches, particularly Notre Dame la Grande, built in the 11th and 12th centuries, with its wonderfully sculptured Romanesque facade. The Cathedral of St. Pierre, 12-13th centuries, has some excellent mediaeval stained glass windows, including one from the 12th century depicting the crucifixion. It also houses one of Europe's most acclaimed organs.
One of the earliest Christian buildings in Europe is the Baptistère St. Jean dating from the 5th to the 11th centuries.
Also of interest are the 19th century Hotel de Ville and Préfecture, and the botanic gardens.
Poitiers is where Jeanne d'Arc was interrogated before being permitted to lead the French army into battle. After being closely questioned her sincerity and faith were accepted by the theologians, who considered her statements to be driven by divine guidance and not heretical.
By mid afternoon we were hot and weary from exploring the streets and the weekend market so returned to Modestine through the cool and flowery botanic gardens and drove across to Futuroscope, the acclaimed science theme park. This was established over 20 years ago, so it is perhaps questionable how futuristic it still is but to judge from the enormous number of cars parked outside and the ticket offices set up to service the crowds, it must still be a big money spinner. We didn't go in. It didn't really look to be our scene and at 33 euros each, with a pensioner's discount, late afternoon was not the time to arrive.
So we returned to the village of Avanton where we are staying and explored the ancient church and the picturesque château, in need of some restoration but very beautiful with its dovecote, high slate roofs, mullioned windows and weathered stone walls, overrun with climbing roses.
Sunday 11th September 2011, Rouffignac, Perigord
We've been moving south for most of the day and this evening we are in the heart of the Perigord region. During the day we stopped for a picnic and a snooze on the edge of the village of Thiviers – driving can be very tiring. When we woke we discovered nearby a hubbub of cheery people about to embark on a railway journey with a difference. Without realising, we'd stopped near a discontinued railway line in nearby woodland that has been revitalised by local train enthusiasts and turned into a Velorail. A stretch of the track has been restored and maintained on a voluntary basis by ex-Cheminots (retired railway workers) and old bogies from the carriages had been adapted to work by pedal power. A couple of cyclists can propel each bogy along the old railway track, which still uses a system of lights to ensure a safe distance between each unit. Today there were eight or nine velos setting off at regular intervals to pedal along the track towards Perigueux. It all looked great fun though hopefully there were no uphill sections as the iron units would be far too heavy to shift. Presumably they are towed back up to the highest point at the end of the day ready for another gentle coast downhill. It transpires that there are similar velorails all over France!
At one point too, we stopped for a stroll around the village of Chalus with its feudal castle on a promontory overlooking the cottages clustered at its base. This, we discovered, was where Richard the Lion Heart died of his wounds in 1199.
The region of Perigord is famed for both truffles and foie gras. Truffles are wild underground mushrooms found on the roots of certain oak trees. Their smell and flavour are intense and quality ones are easily worth their weight in gold. They are searched for between November and March using pigs or dogs. Foie gras comes from the livers of the fat geese we saw waddling happily in the fields, unaware that their days are numbered. They are force-fed on maize to artificially increase the size of the liver, as we saw in the Bearn region of Gascony.
In Perigueux we parked down beside the river and climbed the steps up into the heart of the delightful old stone town where we spent a couple of hours exploring the narrow cobbled streets that wound through a network of tightly packed houses and courtyards. There were some magnificent houses dating back to mediaeval times while others had been constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most were built in stone with much decoration and embellishment while others were of half-timbering.
Restaurants around the town specialised in menus selling truffles and foie gras, sometimes both together.
The most impressive sight of all however is the cathedral of St. Front, listed on the Unesco World Heritage list. It looks very peculiar indeed. The original building is Roman and Byzantine while in the 19th century it suffered an eruption of cupolas that are completely out of style. The architect for these then went on to design the Sacré Coeur in Paris. The similarity of style is unmistakeable!
Leaving the town of Perigueux we found this campsite as we headed towards Sarlat. There are very few people here. We were told to park wherever we liked. Unfortunately it was not until we'd connected to the electricity, got supper cooking and settled for a glass of wine that we were told the water had been turned off for the season where we were camping and we needed to pack up and drive to another area across the road!! We were not best pleased! Cables had to be disconnected and everything reloaded into Modestine while Ian sat clutching a scalding remoska of half-cooked supper along with a couple of glasses of wine as Modestine bumped back up the track! The bright side though is discovering dozens of huge chestnuts, two or three times the size we can find in Devon. Tomorrow we will return for another load.