From Languedoc to the Dordogne
The Dordogne is located in the northwestern area of southwestern France, in the region (for all you British historians) of Aquitaine. It is named after the Dordogne River that runs between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees. This is a typical scene – river, wooded hills, and a castle.
(note: if you click on the photo it will enlarge and sometimes there is more information)
We decided to travel north and west from Saint Chinian to explore the Dordogne River valley – where caves were painted, films have been made, and the cuisine includes no end of vins (mostly red), truffes (truffles), and foie gras d’oie (goose liver pate). Dee has read several books with stories based in the area (mysteries by another Canadian, Michelle Wan) . It did not disappoint. A lasting image is of the many castles poking out of the landscape and built of the local golden-coloured limestone (quite different from the grey stone of the south).
Our first stop was in the tiny village of Saint Antonin Noble Val – about two hours north of Carcassonne. We had a lovely B&B (middle building in photo) in this little village where the movie One Hundred Foot Journey was filmed (Les Recettes du Bonheur in French).
B&B was the third building from the left.
The entrance was on the right, under the banner (note no cars).
A very artsy couple, younger than us – she a fibre artist and potter/sculptor, he a painter – had renovated this 1000 year old house on the river to impeccable standards. We had long, fairly understandable, conversations with both in a form of Franglais – somehow it works when you each know a little in the other’s language and are patient.
We left there in the morning fog and drove further north to the area of the famous cave paintings. We visited the Lascaux II re-creation of the caves which are no longer open to the public (except apparently the President of France) – all very well done for explanation but not “real” (lascaux-dordogne.com/en/lascaux-cave). We were in time for the English tour along with a bus load of young women from a high school in New York city, on their annual European tour.
We stayed over night in a hotel in Sarlat and the next day (thanks to our Rick Steve’s guidebook) we made our way to the nearby Grotte de Font-de-Gaume (eyzies.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/ – try the virtual visit but it does not show the paintings well). This is the only cave in the area still open to the public for the paintings. It was discovered in 1901, before the Lascaux cave (discovered in 1940), and contains over 200 painted and engraved figures on 120 metres of cave wall
Even more significant, art historically speaking, some of the paintings are organized in compositions and scenes and are considered to be among the “greatest masterpieces of humanity.” Because of environmental controls on the humidity and atmosphere of the cave, only 78 visitors are allowed to enter on any day. Lucky we were there in February. We did not rush to be first in line (rushing not being in our repertoire while living dans le sud de la France) so arrived at about 10:30 and were given tickets for 11:15.
As it turned out, we had missed the morning rush and we were the only two on that tour with the guide who is the cave expert and has written a book on the subject. He spoke in English (he had lived in Vancouver for a couple of years) and, like most experts, got quite excited about his subject and responded to our interest by giving us a very personalized tour – turned out the lights and shone his laser light for us to see subtle engravings accentuating the paintings. No cameras were allowed so I had to “borrow” these photos from the website.
Note the use of the curvature of the stone wall to accentuate the animals’ bodies. Totally amazing paintings that date from about 17,000 BC. We felt very privileged – the whole cave thing is almost a spiritual experience when you think of the effort, the artistic sensibility, and the age – Cro-magnon, lived in caves, etc.
In the nearby town there was also a huge, very modern museum filled with local artifacts – mostly stone tools but also some evidence of the art of the “primitive” culture.
Musee National de Prehistoire
Tiny, elegantly carved bone
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil is built into the surrounding rock cliff, with a panoramic view stretching for miles (well, kilometres) over the fertile river valley. Lunch in the local cafe/bistro for Dee was a foie gras sandwich – imagine three slices of pâté in a baguette – sounds a bit boring but it was the most delicious (and cheapest at 5 euros) foie gras ever! And, just along the way, was the hotel (suitably renamed) behind which the bones of that famous man were found.
Cafe/Brasserie in Les Eyzies
We stayed two nights in Sarlat – the weather was not great and we had to walk in the wet, slippery, dark laneways to find an open restaurant (it is February!) but it did have its charm. We eventually came across a cozy, family-run restaurant, with an à la carte menu and friendly service, and it had stopped raining when we had finished our dinner.
Geese (the producers of foie gras) are obviously considered very important judging from this beautiful bronze sculpture in a city square.
Sunday morning we woke up to another drizzly day in Sarlat but headed out towards the centre of the old town in search of coffee. We found that but also a colourful and eclectic market.
Nobody seemed to mind the rain.
French onions galore This colourful fellow was selling wine and foie gras – a perfect combination.
And, in the corner of the market square, in a pop-up storefront, was a Marché aux Truffes (Truffle Market). High-end sellers and buyers – black truffles by the kilogram – prices marked at 200, 500, 800 and more, euros per 100 grams! We had had a truffle omlette for dinner the night before which was speckled with a few black crumbs of truffle – enough for our taste and wallet.
For our last day before heading back to notre maison, we drove further west to experience the Bordeaux wine area – more castles and towns perched on the rock. Most of these date from the Hundred Years’ War, 1337 to 1453 – some are French and some are English. Please do not ask who won.
We concentrated our visit on Saint Emilion, just east of Bordeaux.
Talk about total immersion wine – another tiny medieval village surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see – with probably a ratio of one wine tasting shop to every five residents. We finally bought two bottles of wine from a selection that ranged from 5 euros a bottle to 300, 500 euros a bottle. The wine is red, generally cabernet/merlot blend and, for the connoisseurs among you, apparently 2005 was the best year.
A large selection of Saint Emilion wines One of our choices
This whole area of France is VERY touristy and it was obvious it was good for us to be there out of tourist season. The weather was coolish and sometimes dampish but that was probably easier to deal with than too many people. We drove back on the fast toll road (rather than the windy roads we had enjoyed for the previous four days).
Which way to go?
Follow that man – >>>>