The Dordogne

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 16, 2005

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Friday, March 10, 2006

DAY 7 SAT Margaret drove all the way to Le Coux-et-Bigaroque without incident. Sure, she did hit the curb with great force a couple of times but considering the narrowness of the roads this wasn't too bad. She appeared to be supremely confident whereas I was a knotted ball of stress. Within days I would be as relaxed as she though I continued to flinch every so often, much to her displeasure.

The first village we took the be Le Coux proved not to be and we drove along some very narrow country lanes before almost literally stumbling on the particular lane which led to our gite. Trevor and Jeanette Chew , our landlords, were still preparing our cottage (Les Florettes) and asked us to return in three hours. With time to kill we drove into the nearby town of Siorac to stock up at the local supermarket. For the next forty-five minutes we walked the streets of the small town which, though not exactly a metropolis, was the biggest community within many kilometres. We encountered our first unfriendly native at the local café. Despite our "bonjour, madame" and ingratiating smiles she seemed to take pleasure in informing us that we were too late to order food and would have to be content with an insipid cup of French coffee.

The temperature during the day had hovered between 2o and 7o and, just as we were approaching Coux, it actually began to snow! Margaret was so overcome with emotion that she missed our turnoff. It never snowed again, though much later on we drove through snow-covered mountains in Spain. We had a jolly chat with Trevor, Jeanette and baby Benjamin before bidding them adieu and then set about making the gite our own. From the patio we had a panoramic view of the French countryside and, if memory serves me well, the top of the chateau in Siorac. Our cottage had been built in 1773 as a farmhouse and boasted rough-hewn wooden beams in the ceiling, walls of solid stone blocks, original carved fireplaces and an alcove which had once been an opening into the long-vanished farmhouse kitchen. While there was no backyard to speak of, the front yard was large and contained a swimming pool. I professed great disappointment at the fact that the pool was covered by a tarpaulin, thereby denying me the opportunity to go for a swim. I was bluffing. The temperature was so low that the water in the pool was probably frozen.

Le Coux et Bigaroque, Siorac, France

Shopping in French supermarkets is a lot more fun than shopping at home. I exercised considerable restraint and put down a can of snails even before Margaret told me to. I did succumb to temptation and buy three cans of exotic beer at ridiculously low prices. Margaret complained (and not for the last time) that it took me longer to decide on my beer than it took for her to do all the more serious shopping.

Before we left home we had agreed that we would not panic if we became lost or took the wrong turn. Easy to say! We stuck to our vow, with few lapses, throughout our trip. As navigator I had to make split-second decisions, 50% of which were wrong. We didn't panic when we took the wrong turn; we simply turned around and tried again. I assured myself that my manhood didn't depend on always being right. This was a hard sell as my manhood is a very fragile thing.

DAY 8 SUN We slept extremely well in our large and very comfortable bed upstairs. I was able to make my usual multiple trips to the toilet downstairs without tumbling head over heels down the steep staircase and Margaret didn't wake despite the creaking of the ancient floorboards.

I was anxious to start using my new video camera so you can imagine my disappointment when I found that it wouldn't work. The little screen remained blank except for a message ordering me to remove the lens cap. Stupid, stupid machine. The lens cap was off. I attributed the malfunction to the extreme cold but later learned than I was using an unsuitable cassette. Back in Sydney I watched the four or five minutes of the boring footage I had managed to take in Montmartre and Nancy and decided that the camera's failure was probably a good thing.

Route for today:

1. Take D703 towards Siorac (stop only to buy milk)
2. Continue along D703 and stop at St Cyprien (picturesque town)
3. Onwards to Beynac (feudal castle)
4. Head towards Le Roque Gageac (beautiful village with prehistoric stuff)
5. Possibly on to Sarlat, otherwise return

According to the information available to us it was only a twenty minute drive to Le Roque Gageac so our plan was to drive there, stopping at the other places along the way and returning to the gite for lunch. The reality was quite different and we returned to the gite for lunch after exploring the first town we came to, St Cyprien.

St Cyprien was a small medieval town about seven kilometres from the gite. To our pleasant surprise the main street was full of market stalls selling all sorts of foodstuffs, knives, toys, clothes and wine. We couldn't resist the canard (duck) sausage and bought one to supplement our goat cheese and bread. We came upon the local church just in time for Mass. Could life get much better? The town was rather ancient and the lanes very narrow, too narrow for our large car. It is beyond me why they don't tear down some of the old houses and widen the streets. Surely more tourists would visit places like St Cyprien if they could drive into them.

It was lunchtime by the time we had finished exploring and we returned to base to feast on duck sausage, goat cheese and tomatoes in a baguette. Somehow we missed the turnoff and found ourselves driving along a long country lane which stopped abruptly at a farmhouse. Once we managed to find our way back to the main road Margaret became momentarily flustered and began driving on the wrong side of the road, much to the consternation of a car coming from the opposite direction.

In the afternoon we set out to complete the morning's itinerary. The next town of interest after St Cyprien, in fact the next town, was Beynac. Beynac's main claim to fame is the castle perched high on a cliff overlooking the village on one side and a panorama of fields and chateaux on the other. The Dordogne River winds between farms and fields, a broad and serpentine presence which one seems to cross and re-cross wherever one drives in Perigord.

Beynac and its castle, Siorac, France

We laboured bravely up the steep cobbled street from the parking lot to the entrance to the castle, pausing every so often to rest our legs, admire the old stone houses and to gaze longingly in the windows of the souvenir shops. There were very few people around as the tourist hordes were not expected to arrive for a few weeks.

Margaret and I paid seven euros each (about $A13 at the time of writing) and entered the castle. It was super! A plaque on the battlements advised that Richard the Lionheart, a distant ancestor, had stayed within these very walls back in 1194. The English never managed to capture the castle so I assume Richard was a guest. I was almost overcome with emotion as I stood in the main dining room and visualized the famous Plantagenet relaxing before a roaring fire. We even inspected the stone toilet on which he probably sat his rapidly chilling bum. Sadly, Richard was killed shortly after leaving Beynac.

Richard the Lionheart was here!, Siorac, France

It was 5pm by the time we returned to our car so we decided to go home. Despite having previously identified the lane that led to our gite we missed it yet again and Margaret had to execute a very difficult ten-point turn so that we could make another attempt. We are very phlegmatic in France and merely shrug our shoulders in the Gallic manner and utter a few French expletives when faced with a setback.

Beynac from another angle, Siorac, France

The people here speak French with great fluency. Even the children! Unfortunately very few people in the Dordogne speak English, which tends to lower them in my estimation.

As I write: I have just polished off a third oversize can of beer and am becoming increasingly incoherent, even stupid. The variety of beer and its relative cheapness is a source of wonder and joy. Should I have a fourth? Will I be sick?

An hour passes.

As I write: We have just finished un repas splendide, cooked by Margaret. The Pope's funeral and Charles' wedding are no longer being repeated on BBC World so Margaret has come up with the next best thing, a CD entitled "Pavarotti's Greatest Hit", which is some French bloke singing the same song over and over again.

DAY 9 MON Once again our plans went awry. Our goal was Les Eyzies, a town on the side of a cliff in the Vézère Valley. Margaret drove up a long, zigzagging mountain road for miles. The blind, hairpin bends on a road wide enough for only 1.5 cars had our hair standing on end. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn and found ourselves heading towards Sarlat. We didn't want to go there until Wednesday so we headed towards Domme instead.

Before we reached Domme we pulled into La Roque Gageac. We had forgotten that most places in France are shut on Mondays and were disappointed to find that the prehistoric caves on the side of the cliff were closed. We vowed to return another day (but didn't) and continued our journey to Domme. Domme was something of a letdown. Endless souvenir shops, most of them extremely tacky, bordered the street leading to the Town Square. The greatest attraction of the bastide town was the promenade, a walk along the clifftop with extremely panoramic views. The view might have been stunning but the winds sweeping up from the valley had us shivering in our coats. The second biggest attraction offered by Domme was the cheapness of its coffee.

Rather than proceed further we drove home for lunch. All the shops in the area were closed so we resigned ourselves to devouring what was left of our bread, goat cheese and duck sausage. Over this rural feast (only just beginning to show the first signs of mold) we carefully studied our map and determined the best route to reach the town we had missed in the morning.

Les Eyzies was famed throughout the world for its concentration of prehistoric artifacts. Margaret was able to buy three tea towels for a mere six euros, which gave her a great sense of accomplishment. A more serious student of ancient times, I invested heavily in a couple of genuine fossils, one a snail and the other a trilobite that the owner claimed to be 420,000,000 years old. Margaret tried to needle me by insisting that they were fakes, but my extensive reading on the subject of archeology back in the fifties led me to believe they were the real thing.

Les Eyzies, Siorac, France

Back at Le Coux-et-Bigaroque I left my good wife reading her book on the porch and walked into the village via the long lane. My ramble took me past cottages and farmhouses and large French dogs which barked aggressively but were apparently afraid to venture far from the safety of their masters' front doors. I walked through my village and continued along a country road on the other side for a kilometre or so. I hadn't intended to walk so far but thought I was following the sign, which purported to point towards the local church. I found it on the way back and was not at all impressed by its ugly though ancient façade.

DAY 10 TUE Trevor, owner of our gite, explained that Le Coux-et-Bigaroque is actually a community made up of the villages of Le Coux and Bigaroque. Le Coux is pronounced Le Coox, while Bigaroque was once an English possession and means big rock.

After our informative chat with Trevor we drove to Le Bugue via the village of Audrix. Audrix was tiny and almost deserted but for a couple of local men preparing to bake bread in the village oven. We visited many villages in the Dordogne and found that they were almost indistinguishable one from the other.

It was market day in Le Bugue and the main street of the relatively large town was crowded with stalls. We recognised several of the stallholders from the market day at St Cyprien, including the fellow who sold us our canard sausage. The Internet at the TIO was not going to be available for half an hour so we had a couple of café americaines on the porch of a rather fancy hotel overlooking the Dordogne River. By the time we had re-crossed the bridge and returned to the tourist office the Internet had become available and I was able to read our e-mail.

After checking our mail I looked at my credit union account and was horrified to find that over $6000 had been spent on jewellry by the thieves who had stolen my card in Paris. I was even more horrified to find that the balance of my account was eighty-two dollars. Eighty-two dollars to last us the next five weeks! A more rational Margaret reminded me that I had transferred our holiday money to her account and we were as well off as we had ever been.

Back at the gite I consoled myself with a beer and glass of red wine. This was my equivalent to getting drunk and Margaret was forced to slap me several times before I could banish the picture of two bejewelled pickpockets strolling the streets of Montmartre.

Relaxing after a morning's exploration, Siorac, France

After lunch we drove a short distance to Bigaroque, a very pretty village built by the English during the Hundred-Year War. It was eerily quiet. Its single street was devoid of shops and we couldn't even find a tabac or coffee shop. Less than a one horse town, though the lack of souvenir shops was refreshing.

DAY 11 WED I rose very early in the morning so that I could walk down the lane and ring the credit union at the village telephone. I was relieved to learn that my $6000 would be reimbursed though I would need to fill in a form and send a Statutory Declaration recounting my misadventure.

Wednesday was market day in Sarlat and Trevor had told us that it was the biggest and best market in the area. It was quite a long drive along the D703, taking us yet again through St Cyprien, Beynac and Le Roque Gageac. The road was rather narrow and full of bends but Margaret was still able to direct my attention to points of interest on either side of the road. I found it ironic, even distressing, that the driver of the car was able to see everything within a 180o radius while the passenger, his eyes fixed firmly on the road and his foot pumping an imaginary brake, saw very little.

Sarlat was quite large and we counted ourselves very fortunate in finding the last parking spot in town. The market was as big as Trevor had promised but no more interesting than the others we had seen. We checked our e-mail at La Taverne du Web then walked up and down the ancient streets admiring the strange old buildings. Cathédrale Saint Sacerdos was not all that big or exciting though it did contain a glass cabinet in which reposed what I took to be the miraculously preserved body of someone not mentioned in the guidebooks. How frustrating. To be miraculously preserved yet unknown! Perhaps it was St Sacerdos him/herself, still in one piece thirteen hundred years after dying.

A strange building in Sarlat, Siorac, France

Whilst walking through the market I caught snatches of what sounded very much like an Australian twang. I insinuated myself into the conversation and discovered that I was talking to people from Melbourne and Perth. It was quite a joy to find myself speaking the mother tongue again after so long, though I found that I still tended to speak slowly and precisely as though communicating with foreigners.

A little later we were enjoying a cup of what the French rather optimistically call coffee when an Englishman joined us and suggested that we might like stay in his gite the next time we visited France. He was a most friendly fellow and gave us useful advice as to how to go about getting a Statutory Declaration for the credit union. Like everybody else we had encountered he had no idea what a stat dec was but was still able to recommend a notary near our village.

I am sure we saw everything there was to see in Sarlat, including amongst other things the Lantern of Death (a weird cone-shaped building which was so old that its original purpose was lost to history). Margaret had been tempted by all sorts of shops but bought nothing. After eleven days in France our total purchases amounted to three tea towels, (known in the colloquial argot of the Cullis family as "washing up rags"), one CD and two fossils.

We drove back to the gite for lunch then set off for the village of Meyrals in search of a notary. Jean-Francois or Philippe Magis (I'm not sure which) was helpful beyond expectation. He had never heard of a Statutory Declaration but quickly grasped the concept. I had already written a draft and he kindly offered to type it up on his computer. When I asked him where I should go to fax it to Australia he replied "Mais ici, naturallement!" and proceeded to fax it as I waited. All this at no cost! Margaret felt that I should have offered him a tip, but I'm sure his Gallic pride would have been deeply offended.

After returning to the cottage we visited La Cavern Couse, a wine cellar in the village owned by an English lady. She gave Margaret a mini wine tasting and, after a number of glasses had been consumed, was able to suggest the best local wine suitable for Margaret's discerning palate. We bought one bottle for immediate consumption and a better one to take back to Australia. A few weeks after arriving home we drank it and judged it not much chop. I am no judge of wines and would much prefer a nice brown beer, preferably a Pelforths. As far as I am concerned, wine is for girls and effeminate men.

Observation: The bees here are really big. We noticed a large bumblebee buzzing around the garden this afternoon and remarked in wonderment on its size. The lizards are also different; large and green. After two large cans of 7% alcohol beer I am also impressed by the enormous pink elephants near the swimming pool.

Our gite in the Dordogne, Siorac, France

DAY 12 THU This was the day I almost got us killed. Our drive was to take us out of the Dordogne and into Le Lot, covering much of the same ground we had covered on previous days. After St Cyprien, Beynac, Le Roque Gageac and Sarlat we were in new territory. The good old D703 took us first to Souillac and it was on our way to that town that we came face to face with le mort.

The road, as was usually the case in the French countryside, was narrow and we found ourselves stuck behind a very slow truck. On the way up a zigzag hill the truck activated its left turn indicator. I told Margaret that I had read that this could mean that the driver was letting us know that it was safe to overtake. What I failed to add was that it could also mean that the truck was about to turn left. Taking me at my word, Margaret overtook at great speed on the crest of the hill, only to find several cars heading towards her in the other direction. She managed to swerve back onto the right side of the road just in time to avoid a head-on collision. The truck and the other cars blasted us with their horns and we almost suffered simultaneous heart attacks. Half a kilometre further along the truck turned left.

A cup of espresso was called for and we pulled into a parking lot in Souillac. The restaurant we selected was just the ticket. The restaurateur spoke English and for the first time I was able to award a five star rating to the gentlemen's convenience. Apart from the eatery there seemed little to recommend Souillac so we resumed our journey. Martel and Vagrac were merely names on signposts as we sped down the D703. Bretenoux appeared to be no more interesting but we stopped, nonetheless, for a lunch of the local specialty. Over sweet and sour snails and marinated frog legs we debated the desirability of a visit to the nearby Chateau de Castelnau. Autoire and Loubressac sounded more appealing (not to mention less costly) and both laid claim to the title of Most Beautiful Village in France.

We had thought the D703 a fairly important road, narrow and scary, but it was as nothing compared to the real country roads of France. Margaret drove magnificently, though her frequent scatological exclamations belied her calm exterior. Autoire, the Most Beautiful Village in France, was really rather ordinary . Loubressac, also the Most Beautiful Village in France, was much more worthy of the title. It was appeared to be deserted but for a young couple who watched their five young children race their skateboards down the main street. We marveled at the sleepiness of French towns and villages, which seemed to only come alive at lunchtime.

We were quite exhausted after Loubressac and decided to drive home. Our return journey involved feats of brilliant navigation by the writer and equally remarkable driving by his spouse. Most of my decisions were correct and we were able to bypass Sarlat and drive directly to Le Coux on our favourite road, D703. Margaret was most chagrined that she had not managed to take any cow photos. I was at a loss to understand her obsession with French bovines as they seemed to be exactly the same as our own Australian variety. Perhaps she would succeed in immortalizing Spanish cows.

As I write: The BBC is repeating last night's program. I am about to drink a small bottle of beer, after which I will cook dinner. Margaret deserves a rest after a day's stressful driving. My cooking will involve re-heating the pasta left over from last night's feast.

DAY 13 FRI The day started off well. The lawnmower man had parked his van very close to our parking spot the previous night, forcing Margaret to park at a less than ideal angle. The lane which ran beside the gite was very narrow and she reversed into the earth embankment, dislodging our numberplate. The helpful man at the Intermarche service station brought out his hammer but quickly recommended that we visit Souriac's sole garage . A young mechanic fixed the problem in minutes, prompting me to reward him with a five-euro note. I think my relief was so great that I became carried away with gratitude. In hindsight a two-euro coin would have been more than sufficient.

Feeling much relieved we drove seven kilometres to another self-proclaimed Most Beautiful Village in France, Belvès. Belvès had a much greater claim to that title than Autoire, yesterday's claimant to that appellation. Its église was in the process of restoration, which was a good thing as it had been built in the twelfth century and was starting to fall apart. The advantage in travelling outside of peak season is that you don't see very many tourists. As travellers we tend to feel somewhat superior to tourists, though there is a strong possibility that we are kidding ourselves. The only other foreigners in Belvès were two elderly English couples whom we studiously ignored (much to their relief).

A Belves street scene, Siorac, France

Seven kilometres further on we came to the bastide town of Montpezier, the Most Beautiful Village in France. Montpezier was very, very old, having been established by my ancestor Edward I of England. The town square and its covered market place was the largest we had seen to date and the timbers of the old arcades sagged alarmingly from centuries of bearing the weight of fat French farmers.

In the afternoon Margaret drove us to Montignac where we bought tickets to Lascaux II. The original prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux were discovered by a couple of schoolboys during World War II. They began to deteriorate due to the breathing of large numbers of tourists and in 1984 the caves and their paintings were re-created with great accuracy a few hundred metres away. Our guided tour of the caves took forty minutes and cost eight euros each. Margaret reckoned that we could have been in and out in ten minutes if we hadn't had to wait patiently for the guide to describe each painting in great and incomprehensible detail. The French tourists laughed uproariously on several occasions, so the endless monologue must have been worthwhile for those able to understand the lingo.

Despite the foregoing we still thought the afternoon well spent. The paintings, though re-creations, gave us food for thought re the cleverness of our ancestors. More importantly, I managed to buy my first tee-shirt.

As I write: This is our last night in Le Coux and we plan to leave for Bordeaux as early as possible. Margaret is vacuuming the carpet and I am drinking the last of my beer. It is 6.30pm and the temperature has dropped dramatically. I can hear geese squawking from a nearby farm, possibly in protest at the stuffing of their livers with grain for future use as foie gras.

DAY 14 SAT Our Peugot was very smart. As soon as Margaret turned on the ignition the car informed us that the rear left side tyre needed more air. We drove to Siorac's sole garage (which happened to specialise in Peugeots) and the mechanic checked and filled all our tyres. I didn't give him a tip this time, simply said "thank you sir, you are very pretty".

We drove all the way to Bordeaux without incident. Rain fell off and on for the whole trip, which was a jolly good thing as it allowed us to experience our car's automatic windscreen wipers. They worked as advertised, activating themselves whenever the rain began to interfere with our vision. It was a bit disconcerting at first but we soon became used to it. The Peugot 407 has many wondrous features and it was a pity that the manual was in French because we never learned what they were. Somewhere in Spain we accidentally switched on the radio then couldn't figure out how to switch it off. It stayed on all the way to Lyon.

Margaret drove with confidence, possibly even aplomb, but I was rather tense. My planning took us to the Formule 1 at Lormont, an outer suburb of Bordeaux but I assumed we'd have a terrible time finding it. It turned out to be easy, though we had to drive completely around the ring road surrounding the city (I seem to remember that we had to watch for Exit 37 or possibly 65).

There was nobody in attendance and the automated-room-allocator cum cash-acceptor didn't begin operating for half an hour. It took me some considerable time to work out how to rent a room as the instructions were in French (and not very good French at that). Eventually we dragged our luggage to our cubicle-like room, closing our nostrils to the stench of the septic tanks which permeated the entire first floor.

A short but complicated drive took us to the nearest tram station where we parked our car and boarded a very clean and modern tram for the ride into the centre of town. I had neglected to bring the guidebook so we had no idea what to do or where to go when we alighted at the cathedral. We walked the length of the pedestrianised Rue St Catherine before stopping at a kebab and potato restaurant for a revolting meal of potatoes and who knows what. The proprietor told us that the tourist office was two kilometres away at the end of the very street we had just navigated. We had to retrace our steps all the way to where we had begun!

At the tourist office we learned that we had already seen most of what Bordeaux had to offer. We walked to Place Gaubetta, a ritzy shopping area which, I informed Margaret, was shopper's heaven. In reality its only decent shop was a Virgin Megastore. This store had been my major goal in Bordeaux (as it was in every city) but it was a terrible disappointment.

We spent what must have been an hour in a very crowded café, dense with cigarette smoke and exuding an extremely French atmosphere. Rain and even hail fell as we sipped our coffee but by the time we left it had faded to drizzle. On our way back to the tram station we explored Cathédrale Saint André. Very big, quite impressive. Of more interest was the self-serve toilet in the square outside. I waited for ages for the doors to slide open but had to make way for a Chinese girl who arrived in a very agitated state and in even greater need than myself. She must have been suffering from some terrible bladder condition as she was in there for a very long time.

The Bordeaux tram system was very efficient and we only had to wait seven minutes before we were rolling slowly back to Lormont. We had been dreading the drive back to the hotel as we were sure we would have great difficulty in finding it. Imagine our surprise and delight when we found it straight away. The tram station turned out to be just around the corner from the Formule 1 and we could have saved ourselves a lot of stress by leaving the car behind and simply walking.

I bought two packets of Amphora pipe tobacco in a tabac while we were exploring Bordeaux. The health warning on the packet stated "smoking kills sperm and reduces fertility". I was not concerned.
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