The Dordogne

Monday 12th September 2011, Cadouin, Dordogne
This morning we tried to visit the nearby caves at Rouffignac. However, by the time we arrived at 11.45 they had closed for lunch until 2pm. Once the school holidays end in France the country slips rapidly into a lethargy until the following July! We gave up and continued down the Val de Vezère to Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil. This part of the Perigord is a area of white limestone cliffs riddled with caves and tunnels. It is the region in which Cro-Magnon Man lived and thrived some 20,000 years ago. The area is rich in archaeological finds and it is near here that the Lascaux caves are to be found, along with many others, in some of which exquisite early cave paintings of animals have been found. We have written about the area before. The link is below.

The Val de Vezère is particularly beautiful at this time of year. Stopping frequently to look at the huge rock formations with ancient troglodyte dwellings in the cliff face, we were also able to gather walnuts, ripe figs, apples, blackberries, hazel nuts and walnuts to add to the large bag of chestnuts gathered in the mist this morning before leaving our rural campsite. The day soon heated up and dissipated the mist however and at lunch time we were grateful to seek a shady corner on the banks of the Vezère for our picnic. While we looked at the prehistoric sites we were passed by several tractors loaded high with freshly harvested tobacco leaves.

Grotte du Grand Roc, Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil.

Figs still on the tree, Val de Vesère

Passing traffic seen from our picnic spot, Val de Vesère

We had plans to visit many picturesque villages in the area but every time we stopped we discovered such delights that our progress has been incredibly slow! In Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil we strolled beside the river, explored the main street of stone fronted shops selling foie gras and tins of confit de canard, climbed up to look at the pretty cottages cut into the rock face and discovered the museum of local archaeology.

Street scene, Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil

Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil

Best of all we discovered a man working with flint. Before our very eyes he managed to start a fire by sparking iron pyrites and flint together, the sparks dropping on to pieces of dried and crumbled tree mushroom. He showed us how flint napping is done and explained how he made his replica tools of Cro-Magnon man, using flint for the blade and reindeer antler to make the handle, fixing the two together with reindeer tendon. The knives were very impressive, produced in exactly the same way as in prehistoric times. Once it was realised we spoke French, and not having many other visitors, the cheerful flint artisan was only too happy to show us how he made his replica tools of knives, daggers, arrows and huge hunting spears, tipped with flint. The weapons were all for sale and the knives could all be used in a modern day kitchen if you wished.

Shaping the blade for a flint knife, Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil

By the time we eventually tore ourselves away from Les Eyziers-de-Tayac-Sirueil it was late afternoon. Our next stop was on the list of France's most beautiful villages – Limeuil, at the confluence of the rivers Vezère and Dordogne. The afternoon was very hot and humid with both humans and dogs cooling off in the shallows where the Vezère fed into the Dordogne. Gluttons for punishment however, we climbed slowly up the steep cobbled streets of this ancient, picturesque village until we reached the pretty gardens on the summit of the hill offering views down onto the two rivers. Nearby we sheltered briefly from the heat in the cool, dark church.

Haut Limeuil

Shady vine over a housefront in the village of Limeuil

Confluence of the Vezère and the Dordogne at Limeuil

Already it was too late to visit several places we'd hoped to see. Instead we decided to head towards Bergerac for the night. On the way our route passed through Cadouin which we instantly recognised as somewhere we visited back in 2006. At that time it had been freezing cold while the abbey parvis and the surrounding streets had been in chaos as new paving was laid. Now, on a warm, sunny evening with all the work completed, the village looked peaceful and very beautiful as the sun reflected from the mediaeval pale stone walls. In all corners flowers blossomed. Red roses hung around carved doorways. The abbey church was enticing. Inside it is huge, dark and rather bare but there are some lovely attached cloisters.

Abbey, Cadouin

Pretty doorway in the abbey complex, Cadouin

Covered market and abbey, Cadouin

Porte St. Louis, Cadouin Abbey

Porte St Louis received its name through a misunderstanding. It was for centuries thought that the saintly king of France visited here on a pilgrimage and stayed in the gate-house, but it was all based on a misinterpretation of the chronicles, which actually refer to Cadomi (Caen in Normandy) and not Cadouin in the Dordogne.

By chance we discovered a small campsite right beside the abbey. It seemed very pleasant so we've settled here for the night and will pay our return visit to Bergerac tomorrow instead. In the cool twilight we cooked the apples and some of the chestnuts we'd gathered today in the Remoska outside of Modestine, while in the nearby trees the owls started calling to each other.

Pumpkin trying to escape over the garden wall, Cadouin

Tuesday 13th September 2011, Ste. Foy la Grande, Dordogne
This morning we drove to Bergerac, stopping at the pretty riverside town of Lalinde on the Dordogne for coffee and croissants on the sunny town square. This early in the day it was not unbearably hot so it was a really enjoyable treat.

Lalinde from the bridge, Dordogne

Remains of the town gate, Lalinde, Dordogne

Town square, Lalinde, Dordogne

Ian enjoying his morning coffee and croissant, Lalinde, Dordogne

Lalinde was once threatened by a dragon that destroyed the fleet of tiny, shallow-bottomed boats that caught lampreys in the river. Nothing would persuade him to go away until a very old and gnarled man on a mission from Heaven, shook his fist at the dragon and ordered him to depart. The river opened and the dragon disappeared down into Hell leaving the fishermen and lampreys in peace. The old man became St. Foy, after whom the cathedral in Perigord, which we visited recently, is named. Amazing! Does the Vatican really recognise such acts as miracles? Perigueud cathedral dates back to Roman times and is a world heritage site. France has hundreds of saints that have surely never been properly canonised.

Reminder of the terrifying ordeal suffered by the lamprey fishers of Lalinde

In Bergerac we left Modestine in a shady side street and walked into the old historic town. I swear there are proportionately more English people in this area than you'd ever find on an average London street! Of course the Brits know a good thing when they see it and we've been pretty keen on this region since it was actually owned by the English back in the 12th century. It's certainly very pretty and there is much to be said for whiling away a couple of very hot hours in the middle of the day being served a delicious lunch under a shady awning, or sitting back with a glass of the local wine and an easily available English newspaper, surrounded by ancient buildings from the 14th century with their carved stone façades.

Maison des vins, Bergerac, Dordogne

Half-timbering with some brick nogging, Bergerac, Dordogne

Cyrano de Bergerac, Bergerac, Dordogne

14th century house in which the conference resulting in the Peace of Bergerac was held in 1577, ending the 6th war of religion. This eventually led to the Edict of Nantes in 1598 granting tolerance to French Protestants, Bergerac, Dordogne

Lovely as Bergerac undoubtedly is, it was too hot to really appreciate its charms and we confined our wanderings to the shady streets, hurrying across any open spaces where the brightness of the sun scorched our eyeballs. Temperatures have been well into the 30s.

We've described Bergerac on our previous visit in 2006. This time we discovered a museum of tobacco which seemed a good way to avoid the heat as well as hopefully discovering why there are tractors loaded with tobacco leaves driving around the country roads and why we've seen wooden buildings with slatted sides out in the countryside. These are where the leaves are hung to dry as air passes through the slats and between the leaves. Unfortunately we didn't learn all we wanted to know as the museum concentrated more on the ethnography and history of tobacco and smoking. There were countless paintings and prints of smokers through the ages, dozens of tobacco jars, pouches and snuff boxes, an entire display of the pipe production process in St. Claude in Eastern France, but virtually nothing about local cultivation and production. The staff were helpful, explaining that tobacco, along with foie gras and Bergerac wine, are the major commercial activities of the region. Cigarettes are no longer produced in France so once dried the leaves are sent to Spain. France then imports the finished cigarettes back from Spain! Ian was particularly intrigued by a huge machine in wood and iron that worked as a pantograph, reducing a life sized model of a head down to one in wood small enough to form the bowl of a smoker's pipe.

Machine for carving pipe bowls, Tobacco museum, Bergerac, Dordogne

We drove some fifteen kilometres along to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a pleasant bastide town on the banks of the Dordogne. Many of the towns in this area (including Lalinde) are bastide towns, the streets constructed on a grid system back in mediaeval times and surrounded by a defensive wall. At least in such a town it was possible to find shade along some of the narrow streets. Sainte-Foy-la-Grande is a town of beautiful warm stone walls, massive timber doors, mullioned windows, ornate gables and cobbled streets. No chain stores in towns like these! Each enterprise is individual with a high proportion of boulangers, cafes and restaurants.

We've paced our day to the hot temperature. Tomorrow we are expecting to visit a friend not very far from here and feeling completely exhausted we decided to investigate the local campsite rather than press on to the one in Duras as intended. It has turned out to be a really good site on the banks of the river. It is run by English people and most of the visitors are English. The owner's son, aged five, insisted on personally conducting us to our pitch, despite his father assuring him we'd find it on our own, and Modestine was obliged to crawl around the campsite a few feet behind him until he waved us onto our selected pitch! We are in blissful shade and the deserted swimming pool was the most wonderful sight! Within minutes I was in there cooling off while Ian sorted out Modestine and set up our tables and chairs with glasses of wine ready for my return!

Cooling off, Ste. Foy la Grande, Dordogne

Related links from Maxted Travels:
Dordogne and Perigord, March 2006
Bergerac 2007