A Travellerspoint blog

Farewell to the Dordogne

semi-overcast 20 °C

Religion played a significant role in French daily life in the past and churches and monasteries were often built with fortifications in case the 'neighbours from hell' came calling. The cistercian abbey of Cadouin was begun exactly 900 years ago in 1119 and suffered badly during the religious wars in the 13th and 14th centuries. The abbey is on the El Camino to Santiago de Compostela because a cloth said to be the facecloth from Jesus's tomb was kept there from 1214. These are the cloisters where millions of devout pilgrims assembled to view this precious relic for more than 700 years...


Unfortunately for the abbot's money box, in 1924 some smart-ass scholar realized that the wording on the cloth was actually Islamic and had nothing to do with Christ. (Although the pilgrims still come).
The builders of the monastery and church in Rocamadour, another stop on the Camino, took defences to new heights when they built high up on the cliffs above a steep gorge...


The church, several chapels and various monastic buildings cling precariously to the rock face and appear only to survive through the grace of God and the spiritual power of the Black Virgin whose statue is worshipped here...


Luckily for us an elevator and a funicular transported us to the top otherwise we would have had to follow the pilgrims up several giant staircases from the pretty medieval village in the valley below...


Our time in the Dordogne has come to an end and we are now headed north to Orleans and the Loire Valley to visit the chateaus of the Bourbon kings. We are leaving behind a land steeped in history where we have walked in the footsteps of cro-magnon people: humans, not dissimilar to ourselves, who left their paintings and marks in Lascaux Cave never thinking that we would be marvelling at their skills twenty thousand years later. The Dordogne area is riven with caves: many containing the the artworks of ancient man and many that have been occupied by troglodytes for thousands of years. Here in the steep cliff face above the riverside village of Laroque-Gageac it is possible to see the cave houses that once protected the villagers from war and marauding animals...


The medieval houses that are strung along the riverside under the cliffs seem to be in peril of rock slides but they have survived for hundreds of years...


The river, the houses and the cave pocked cliffs at Laroque-Gageac create a postcard scene...


But there are also many caves that have remained completely hidden from time immemorial and have only been discovered by luck. The most famous painted caves at Lascaux were only discovered in 1940 because a teenager's dog chased a rabbit down a small hole in the hillside. Les grottes de Maxange were unearthed by a local quarryman just a few years ago when he was blasting the cliff face and he unearthed one of the most spectacular cave systems we have ever seen. Because of the unique conditions within the limestone cliffs near Cadouin the calcite stalactites and stalagmites have grown in all directions – they are known as eccentrics...


There are millions of these incredibly beautiful eccentrics, and probably millions more in parts of the caves yet to be explored, and it is difficult to believe that nature created them over hundreds of thousands of years. Many of them look more like artistic glass creations of Chihuly...


There is still much to see and do in the Dordogne but on we must go – maybe next time. Tomorrow, one of the most magnificent chateaus in France – Le Château Chambord.

Posted by Hawkson 09:19 Archived in France Comments (3)

Birthday in Bergerac

semi-overcast 19 °C

On Tuesday October 1st we commemorated a very special birthday in Bergerac. It was the day China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding as a communist country. China has come a very long way since October 1st 1949 and even here in Aquitaine in Southwest France the effect of the buoyant Chinese economy is noticeable. More than 150 of the best vineyards and many great chateaus are now owned by Chinese nationals. But someone else has come a long way since that date and here we are with her brother and his wife celebrating seven very successful decades...


Our birthday dinner at l'imparfait restaurant was superb, but there are many fine eating establishments in Bergerac and we are doing our best to get around them all. Foie gras and duck are the most common menu items but we've also enjoyed sweetbreads, mackerel, goose and snails – all foods rarely found on Canadian menus.

The medieval city of Bergerac is just one of the numerous historic communities that straddle the Dordogne River and exist largely on tourism and wine today. Bergerac is particularly well known because of Cyrano de Bergerac, a soldier and poet whose enormous nose prevented him from professing his love for his cousin , (or so the story goes). Cyrano is credited with vanquishing the English from this part of France in the mid 1600s and he is celebrated with at least 3 statues in Bergerac. This one stands outside the main church...


We are staying in this four story medieval house next to the chateau in the middle of the old city...


Our lodgings have been comfortably refurbished with many more mod/cons than the original owners could ever have imagined in the 16th century. However, Bergerac has street after street of houses that were built in the middle ages – here are just a few...




The Bergeracois have been very sensible in banning motor vehicles from most of the old city, although in truth many of the roads are smply too narrow and too tightly woven for all but the smallest vehicles. Don't try driving through here...


However, the Dordogne River is a wide, though shallow, highway that gently meanders past the old city and has been used for centuries to carry wine and produce from the fertile valleys of the Dordogne and its tributaries to Bordeaux and ultimately to the world. Flat bottomed boats called gabarres were the traditional sailing vessels used for transport and we took a short river cruise on a replica gabarre from the town of Beynac which is built into the rock face. From the boat we were able to get wonderful views of chateaus and castles that were built nearly a thousand years ago when the English and the French were at war over this land. The French originally controlled one side of the river from the castle high above the river in Beynac...


This seemingly impregnable castle was built in 1115 and was captured by Richard the Lionheart for England in 1194. And this is the English castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle on the other side of the river which was built about 950 years ago.


Descendant of the original owner, Francois de Caumont, eventually grew tired of living in a monstrous and uncomfortable castle so he built Les Château Milandes nearby in 1489. This is the chateau that was eventually owned by Josephine Baker.
It would take months to trace the convoluted histories of these incredible places and we only have a week, but an interesting fact about the gabarres is that the Dordogne River usually flowed too fast for the boats to sail back upstream once they had delivered their goods in Bordeaux. So the boatmen would break up their boat and sell the wood for firewood. They would then walk the 200 miles home and build another boat ready for the next year's crop.

Posted by Hawkson 12:26 Archived in France Comments (5)

La Vie en France

semi-overcast 21 °C

Daily life in France is little different than life in any other Western country, however there are certain customs and institutions that are fairly unique here.

La Mairie
Rules and regulations are important to the French, (not that they always comply with them). Just remember where the word bureaucracy comes from! La Mairie, (the town hall), is the centre of administration in every community and is usually housed in a beautiful building on the town square. This one is in the village of Trémolat.


Le commémoratif de guerre
Even the tiniest of villages has a war memorial. France has a great number of wars to remember, chief among them the two World Wars when being Germany's next door neighbour turned out to be a liabilty. This memorial stands on the banks of the Dordogne River in the town of Lalinde...


La boulangerie
Few French can survive without their daily bread and, when smaller villages lose their stores to the hypermarkets and shopping malls, the boulanger is usually the last to leave town. One of our delights of visiting France is a warm baquette for breakfast. The baker's charming wife served us sweetly every morning in the Le vieux fournil, (the ancient oven), bakery in Bergerac...


La boucher
The town's butcher is also a survivor and the range of meats and the quality would put the average Canadian purveyor to shame. Rabbits, wild boar, horse and all kinds of game birds are readily available here alongside the speciality of this region of France. Perigord is renowned for foie gras, (goose liver pâte). However, the ancient inhumane process of force feeding geese to produce grossly enlarged livers is now illegal. Goose and duck are the staples of every butcher and restaurant in the Perigord and we have taken advantage of that. While meat prices in general are comparable to those in Canada certain cuts are prized here. For example: in this butcher's shop in Bergerac the finest steak was 24.80 euros a kilo, ($36.00 Cdn) while the calves liver was 37. 90 euros a kilo, ($55.00 Cdn.)

La laverie
Ancient wash-houses usually fed by natural streams can be found in almost every small town and village and it is occasionally possible to see a woman doing the week's laundry there. This unusual, and sadly neglected, semi-circular laverie was cut into the rocks on the outskirts of the village of Monplaisant in medieval times...


Le marché
Although supermarkets and enormous hypermarkets are common in all larger towns, street markets remain as a major source of goods in almost every community. Covered market halls more than 500 years old like this one in Cadouin are a common sight...


We love the markets of the world but here in France they are an institution that cannot be missed. The Sunday morning market that winds through the medieval streets in the Dordogne town of Sarlat-la-Canéda is a perfect example, with hundreds of venders selling everything from wine to furniture. Variety is the spice of life in France and there is vast array of products for sale in every market. In Sarlat on Sunday we counted more than 25 types of onion, shallots and garlic on one stall, and 30 different dried sausages on another....


This stall offered dozens of different cheeses...


Note: The cheese counter in one supermarket in Bergerac had more than 400 different cheeses on offer.

La cave à vin
Vineyards and wine shops are ubiquitous throughout France, although the aisles of every supermarket and corner store are stacked with booze of all kinds. The local plonk can be bought in plastic bottles for a few euros a litre while drinkable bottles of vin ordinaire start around three Canadian dollars. However, the sky is the limit for certain Chateau bottled vintages. This chateau bottled Bergerac wine was $5 Cdn a bottle but only $4 if you bought six...


That's all we can write for this blog – we still have 5 bottles to get through.

Posted by Hawkson 03:49 Archived in France Comments (4)

Les Château Milandes

semi-overcast 23 °C

Here's a puzzle for our regular readers. Whose home did we visit today?


If Americans are asked to recall Saturday April 12 1975 they may remember that it was the day they were forced to abandon their secret war in Cambodia.and evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. They may also recollect that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest-serving president in U.S. history, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. However, few Americans will probably acknowledge that one of the most famous American dancers and singers of all time died that day. What has the death of a 68 year old American entertainer to do with the Dordogne in Southwest France? The answer lies inside this magnificent mansion...


This is Les Château Milandes, a grand 15th century manor house near the Dordogne town of Sarlat-le-Caneda. It was the residence of the lords of Caumont who preferred to live here instead of their large, uncomfortable medieval castle of Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. Here's another view of Les Milandes...


However, we are not here hoping to spot the ghost of a medieval chevalier. We are seeking to retrace the steps of a young black woman who topped the bill in the the most fashionable of Parisian nightspots in the middle of the 20th century. Following sold out performances at the Folies-Bergère she would have danced her way though this 600 year old doorway to her grand bedroom on the 2nd floor...


If you are not French her name may not mean much to you, but the owner of this building, (and the entire village), was born in 1906 to a single mother on skid-row in St. Louis, Missouri. She had little education and dropped out entirely at the age of 10 to support her family. She married badly at 13 and again at 15 and was seemingly destined for the street – but she could dance. By 16 she was dancing in revues in New York and at the age of 19 she was the talk of Paris in the Roaring Twenties. In no time she was one of the most sought after dancers and singers in the world, but she was shunned in her home country where black women were expected to know their place. Sixteen of New York's top hotels refused to serve her and she was only given a room in the seventeenth because she agreed to use the kitchen entrance and the staff stairs. Here in her magnificent mansion in the lush valley of the Dordogne she never had to worry about climbing the spiral staircase inside the fortified tower...


And she could have wandered these beautiful gardens which must have seemed like the Garden of Eden to her...


During the Second World War she became French and served as a leuitenant in La résistance. She was awarded France's highest award for gallantry – the Legion d'honneur – along with numerous medals and citations: no small feat for a black kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in St. Louis.

In her determination to unite the peoples of the world she and her husband adopted twelve very young children from different countries and brought them up together here. But her generosity and naivity eventually backfired: she was bankrupted and evicted and forced to go back on the stage in her late sixties. The trauma of losing all she had worked so hard to achieve was too much and she soon died. But here in Les Château Milandes in this beautiful corner of France her memory will live forever...


To find out more about our heroine click here and ignore the Japanese advert:

Posted by Hawkson 13:03 Archived in France Comments (3)

Interior Design a'la Cro-Magnon

semi-overcast 18 °C

The Aquitane region of Southwest France is a sweet land of rolling hills and meandering rivers where the fertile soils have nourished humans for many thousands of years. Today, the area is best known for its wines, sunflowers, tobacco and, especially, foie gras. However, there was a time when lions, bison and reindeer roamed this land together with wild horses and bulls. How do we know this? Because here in the limestone hillsides above the town of Montignac are the most famous cave paintings in the world.


This bull,and many similar ones were painted on the wall of a cave in Lascaux almost twenty thousand years ago by paleolithic cro-magnon men.


There are thousands of sophisticated paintings and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the Lascaux Cave and wild animals of all kind are easily recognisable. Lions and bison no longer roam these hills but the horses and deer are easy to spot...


The amazing thing is that the cro-magnon artists were well versed in the art of prospective long before the 15th century Italian Renaissance painters dipped their brushes in oils and everyone applauded their amazing discovery. Sorry Leonardo– the French beat you to it by nineteen and half thousand years. The painted caves at Lascaux were discovered in 1940 during World War II, but once the war was over they quickly became over-run with sightseers. The public has been barred from the caves for many years so we were planning to sneak in when we discovered that the canny French had created an exact replica right next door. Phew! Imagine coming all this way and not getting a look at this incredible picture?


The caves are just one of the many attractions in this region of France and our first stop on the riverside road from our temporary home in Bergerac to Lascaux took us through many historic villages and past many great chateaus. We followed the rivers upstream from Bergerac until we came to the tiny town of Tremolat...


Ivy covered cottages surround the church that is one of the stops for pilgrims en-route to Santiago de Compostela and this is the picture perfect old mill...


This is the view of the Dordogne River from the top of the hill overlooking Tremolat...


But the two hour drive to Lascaux took us through many similar picturesque villages of buttery limestone cottages, any one of which would have enough scenes for a complete set of table mats.


Finally we arrived in Montignac on the banks of the Vezere River just in time for the market...


But almost everyday is market day somewhere in this region. There is so much history, wine and foie gras here that we will never cram it all in this week - but we will do our best.

Posted by Hawkson 12:24 Archived in France Comments (3)

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