Cycling the Dordogne
Sat Jun 16 2007
ON A HILL IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE -- My thighs ache, sweat is dripping down my back, I’m on the lowest gear I can find, and I’m gasping for air.
"You OK, Mom?" my middle son calls out from a shady spot on this deceptively gentle sloping country road, rimmed in green, that winds relentlessly up from the Dordogne River in southwest France.
I am better than fine, actually. I am filled with the exultation of the marathoner who didn’t quit the race; the speed skater who pushed through the pain; the idiot who signed the family up for a nine-day cycling trip.
Sure, it was a bit of a stretch. Our family of five from the prairies doesn’t own a single pair of Lycra shorts. Our bikes are garage-sale specials -- stolen with astonishing regularity nonetheless -- that get us to school and maybe to the park down the block.
But for this romantic soul, it was a dream vacation.
We’d taken ski trips for years. We were all in good shape. How much harder could a cycling trip be?
"There’s a reason why all those medieval castles have great views, you know," a good friend pointed out. "They’re on top of hills so they could spot their enemies."
Well, they have seen the enemy and it is us.
One of us can’t speak French; the rest are barely fluent. None of us has a particularly good sense of direction, and we have little to no knowledge of this lovely and historic area.
It’s the blind leading the blind, on a -- lord help us -- ’self-guided’ tour.
We booked online in February, through a company named Cycle the Dordogne, run by a ruddy-faced Englishman named Cliff Walker and his French wife Annie.
I’d heard the Dordogne Valley was jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a rich medieval heritage, and that Sarlat -- an important marketplace since the Middle Ages -- shouldn’t be missed.
The Dordogne River separated the English from the French during the Hundred Year War. Thirteenth- and 14th-century castles dot the landscape, each encircled by towns of golden limestone out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Today it is a very popular tourist destination for French and Anglos alike.
The Dordogne is not chic like the French Riviera, its wineries are eclipsed by those of the Loire or Rhone valleys, and its glamorous cousin Provence is more celebrated in literature and art.
The Dordogne is famous for its castles, caves and canards -- foie gras, to be exact. It’s also renowned for its strawberries, goat cheese and walnuts. In fact, for much of the time, we followed "La route de la noix," a sign I thought admirably reflected our group.
But there was so much more to the area -- prehistoric paintings and museums; physical oddities like the Gouffre de Padirac, a giant sinkhole with stalactites and stalagmites; mystical shrines like Rocamadour, founded on the bones of Zaccheus, a purported disciple of Jesus.
We encountered surprises every day, many within 10 kilometres of the next.
"There are two kinds of travellers on these trips," Cliff Walker told us the first morning on a sunny patio in Gourdon. "Those who have researched and read all the guide books and know more about the area than I do, and the ones who wake up every morning and say, ’Where am I again?’"
Walker’s been in the business for more than a decade as a local rep for self-guided operations. But this is the first year he and Annie have owned their own company. Their motto? "Flexibility, freedom and value for money." Our customized trip cost us $9,900 Cdn.
Basically, self-guided tours are the perfect thing for the independent and mildly introverted traveller.
You get pre-paid lodgings and some dinners. You get daily itineraries with directions to all kinds of optional sights. You get maps and good 21-speed touring bikes, with panniers and helmets.
You have a guy like Cliff, who is a phone call away if there’s a problem on the road, and who hauls your luggage discreetly from place to place so that all you need to carry in those panniers is baguettes and cold beer. ("If all goes well, you won’t see me again until the end of your trip," he told us cheerfully that first morning, as we went wobbling uncertainly off, like a flock of slightly addled Canada geese. )
What you don’t get on a self-guided tour is some stranger telling you where you’re going every day, and a possibly annoying set of travelling companions.
It’s fun, it’s spontaneous, and it’s challenging.
Many days we found we’d chosen to cover up to 60 kilometres of rolling terrain, plus climbed castle ramparts and churches, and scrambled up hills to panoramic viewpoints.
We ate picnics on the road, and dropped into bed every night, tired and stuffed after another two-hour, four-course meal.
We were lucky, too.
It was late April and sunny, and the tourist season had not yet taken off. The Dordogne can be a zoo in the summer, and even back-road cyclists should stick to late spring and fall.
We got into coveted sites like the 15,000-year-old prehistoric cave paintings of Grotte de Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies just by showing up one morning for a ticket. We travelled paved country roads that were mercifully tranquil, watched by fields of cows, sheep, and overstuffed fowl.
We breakfasted alone many days, and were doted on by staff. (So much for the so-called French attitude. Everyone was more than kind. On our last day, the owner of Hostellerie de La Bouriane stayed up late making croissants for us -- including the kids’ fave, pain au chocolat -- and packed it into a big bag with fresh fruit and juice for the train ride back to Paris.)
We learned that cycling is a lot like skiing, with its daily dose of thrills and chills. It’s chilling to watch teenage boys navigate village streets and bolt downhill without considering applying a brake. It’s a thrill to crest a long tough incline and start that lovely sail downward.
We learned how to handle those hills, up and down.
We got stronger every day, discovered amazing things together, looked after each other, and took time to smell the fleurs.
Nine sunny days; 500 kilometres. Incroyable.
It’s a five-hour train ride from Gare D’Austerlitz in Paris to Gourdon.
In Gourdon, we stayed at the 110-year-old family-operated Hostellerie de La Bouriane, run by Mathias Lacam (www.hotellabouriane.fr). This place is a true find; the rooms are lovely, the food is great; the service is superlative.
In Rocamadour, we stayed in a restored manor house called Relais Les Vieilles Tours, (les.vieillestours-rocamadour.com/) which began as 13th and 17th-century falconers’ towers, with a pool and a stunning view of the valley. The owners and accommodations were charming, and the area was a terrific base for sightseeing. This was where we saw the shrine and all that has been built around it (Rocamadour is a top tourist site in France, second only to Mont St. Michel); La Foret des Singes, an enclosed ’forest’ full of monkeys imported from Morocco; the ’prettiest village in France,’ Loubressac; and took a gondola ride through the surreal Gouffre De Padirac.
In Vitrac, we stayed at a working farm/bed and breakfast called La Ferme Fleurie (www.perigord.com/la-ferme-fleurie). It was an experience in itself -- we all ate dinner together at one long table, summoned at 7:30 by a big dinner bell, and we all doted on the farm’s latest puppy, which frolicked at our feet. Meals were homespun, hearty and inexpensive. From here, we explored the area’s rich medieval history. We saw Beynac, a brooding 13th-century castle once occupied by Richard the Lionheart; Castelnaud, a castle-turned-museum of war which provided a good snapshot of the area’s tumultuous past; La Roque Gageac (a former ’prettiest town in France’) and Domme. We also visited the Wednesday market in Sarlat, which really is a medieval jewel, although bigger and busier than any other centre we visited.
In Les Eyzies de Tayac, we stayed at Moulin de la Beune, a former mill tucked beside a stream. From here we saw Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, a fine collection of prehistoric cave paintings; Abri du Cap Blanc, 10,000-year-old sculptures carved into natural rock; we ran into a Tour de France motor rally that looked like something straight out of a 60s French film; and La Roque St. Christophe -- a series of caves hollowed out of a limestone cliff that have harboured people for centuries. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fascinating walk through time.
© 2007 Winnipeg Free Press. Reprinted With Permission.