Europe part 2: the Dordogne

I just don’t know how they do it.  I am, of course, talking about the French and their remarkable ability to maintain picture-perfect villages and a bucolic countryside.  There were no subdivisions, no Walmarts, and barely a building over three stories.  I had expected some nice scenery, but still, I was surprised…

Tired from an early morning departure from Lisbon (4 am wake up for a 7 am flight!), and cranky from a long and slow line at the rental car counter at the Toulouse airport, we wrangled the kids and luggage into the car and began our drive to Montignac, our base in the Dordogne.  At first, we both focused on the tasks at hand–navigating via iphone for me and driving via the autoroutes for Mr. No Nom.  As Toulouse began to fade in the rearview mirror and the kids finally drifted off to sleep we looked about and were glad to be back in France, where I can actually speak the language!  Rather than take the autoroute all the way to our destination, we decided to take the back roads for part of the way and mon dieu, this part of France is breathtaking with gently rolling hills and farmland punctuated with perfect villages built from yellow local stone with grey lauze (stone) roofs.

Seriously, I think we only came across one village that we didn’t care for; the rest were gorgeous and insanely perfect.  Each one seemed to have its own little boulangerie, patisserie, cute cafe and weekly (sometimes twice a week) marche.  (How do all these businesses make a living?  But they do and seem to be flourishing.)  I became quite partial to the villages along the Vezere and Dordogne rivers, where entire villages were either perched high up on cliffs or serenely hugging the river.  My favorite little village has to be St. Leon sur Vezere, where along the river there is a little grassy area with weeping willows (I have a soft spot for weeping willows)–perfect for picnics and just lazing about while an occasional canoe/kayak goes by.

It would be enough to just visit one beau village at a time and take in the breathtaking countryside, mais non, there are also churches, castles, prehistoric caves and troglodyte sites.  One could spend a month here and still not see everything.  Here are some of the highlights–all within an hour’s drive of our base in Montignac:

La Roque St. Christophe: A spectacular troglodyte site where cave dwellers lived some 55,000 years ago, and then became a medieval fortress and village (complete with a church) built into the sheer rock cliff overlooking the Vezere River.

Gouffre de Padirac: When I first tried to get Soup-er Boy interested in planning our trip to the Dordogne, I used this cave as a starting point.  What seven-year old boy wouldn’t be intrigued by a visit to a cave with a subterranean river running through it? And thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to give him a glimpse of what was to come.  He was hooked.  Legend has it the devil created this giant hole in the ground with his heel to challenge Saint Martin and indeed it has some otherworldliness about it with soaring caverns and deep green lakes.

– Canoeing on the Dordogne:  As we doubted our active toddler could sit still in a canoe for more than 5 minutes we left Soup-er Girl in the company of her doting grandparents and took Soup-er Boy on a 10 km trip down the Dordogne River.  It was a glorious summer day and I could not believe the astounding beauty that we saw from that canoe.  Village after village rose from the water’s edge and beautiful bridges gracefully arched over us as we paddled leisurely along, stopping for a picnic lunch along the way.  Soup-er Boy loved the canoe trip and waded in the water as we waited to be picked up by the canoe operation.  (First photo above is of the village of Beynac and the Chateau de Beynac up atop.)

Chateau de Castelnaud: After spotting the Chateau from our canoe on the river, we knew we had to visit.  Little did we know that the visit would be Soup-er Boy’s introduction to a new obsession: le trebuchet (sling-shot like catapult).  The Chateau is home to an impressive medieval armory museum, complete with informational videos, miniature battle scenes, and, of course, life-size trebuchets. (Below is pic of the Chateau from the river.)

St. Amand de Coly: I am not particularly religious or spiritual, but I do believe in the power of special places.  Mostly unadorned, save a couple of small frescoes, this 12th century fortified church in St. Amand de Coly exuded a graceful, powerful calm.

– The Cradle of Mankind: This corner of France is littered with prehistoric caves, many of which are open to the public, though entry to some require reservations months in advance.  We managed to visit Lascaux II and Grotte de Rouffignac–the former is a replica (partial) of the original Lascaux cave and known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory, and the latter is famous for its depictions of mammoths.  The level of detail in Lascaux II is extraordinary, from the paintings to the shape/surface of the cave wall, every aspect is precise down to 1 millimeter.  While the original Lascaux cave is closed to visitors for preservation purposes, Rouffignac and its original mammoth paintings are  accessible via electric train (to Soup-er Boy’s delight!).  Sorry, photos weren’t allowed.

– And lastly, the food, oh the food!  When we sat down for lunch in Sarlat, our first meal in France, I was giddy with joy and anticipation.  I hadn’t ordered anything particularly special, just a salad with lardon and some local sheep cheese, but I was happy to be back in France and looked forward to all the local delicacies.  From our farmhouse base, we had a daily breakfast of croissants, pain au chocolat, fresh baguette, cheese and that special yummy french butter.  We even grilled steaks for dinner one evening, served with haricots vert, pan-seared potatoes, and an offering of olives and pickled garlic from the farmers market. And given our location in the Perigord, duck and foie gras were often on the menus when we ate out.  In short, we ate like kings and queens, and below is the proof.

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