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Winnipeg Free Press

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Cycling the Dordogne
Nine sunny days and 500ks of beauty and history

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.


Getting there:

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.


Here is what some of our guests have said about their stay with us.
We do hope that when you return home you will add your comments, too.
Spiros and Maria
Spiros and Maria
Melbourne, Australia
September 2017
What a fabulous way to explore the Dordogne and experience French culture, history, gourmet delights and stunning scenery that this region has to offer. This cycling adventure exceeded our expectations and a big thank you to Cliff and Annie for organising the itinerary, bikes, excellent accommodation and providing outstanding support and hospitality.
Stuart Auchincloss
Stuart Auchincloss
Woodstock, NY USA
September/October 2017
We had a really good trip. Cliff provides such friendly personal service that even when we needed a little special care he made it seem easy. And if you do not know this part of France I cannot think of a better guide. I recommend Cycle the Dordogne without reservation.
Roger and Jean Parkes
Roger and Jean Parkes
Stourbridge England
September/October 2017
Excellent introduction to the Dordogne with just the right balance between the tourist locations and hidden gems of medieval villages. Relaxing, carefully selected routes along high ridges and river valleys took in fabulous countryside always full of interest and none of the climbs were difficult particularly for my wife who was supplied with a state of the art electric assist bike! The accurate easy to follow route notes were full of interesting information and optional diversions on most days made the holiday truly flexible. At the end of each day we stayed in friendly family hotels where our luggage was always waiting and enjoyed superb local food with lots of menu choices. Cliff's attention to detail, local knowledge and advice made this a great trouble free holiday. Well done!
Will Cogburn
Will Cogburn
Florida, USA.
September/October 2018
Hi Cliff, We want to thank you for such a wonderful trip. The accommodations and routes (roads) were perfect. The bikes were perfect, thanks so much for getting us the Specialized hybrids, they were great. Thanks again, the tour exceeded all of our expectations. We hope to be able to return soon. Will and Dianne
Heather and David England
Heather and David England
Port Elliot. South Australia
September 2017
A superb week in the Dordogne thanks to Cliff and Annie. Our tailor-made tour included transport for us and our baggage, very detailed bike route directions, thoroughly equipped bikes in very good condition, delightful accommodation, fabulous breakfasts, delicious dinners where included, accessibility to help when needed and simply wonderful French experiences. So well looked after - thank you both! You understand what hospitality and service are all about.
Roger McCarthy
Roger McCarthy
Whistler, B.C. Canada
September 2017
My 4th tour with Cliff & Annie and there are few things in life that equal rolling along on your bike, and even less things in life that equal cycling the Dordogne/Lot river valleys. The pavement is like velvet, the scenery is from centuries before, the food is outstanding and Cliff is a gem of a person, full of details on each days ride, shows up to move your bags with a grin and story or two, ("don't miss this or be sure to stop there and see the .....!") Its something you do with friends, family and create lifetime memories. Ive been home a couple of weeks and I can not get the whole experience out of my mind, I work in the resort business, we talk about creating memories in peoples vacations, to ride the Dordogne or the Lot will at times stop you in your tracks, leave you with images in your mind and pictures that just do justice to the dramatic buildings and bridges constructed so long ago.... Amazing! I'm coming back!!!
Janet Cunningham
Janet Cunningham
Vancouver, BC, Canada
September 2017
We had a wonderful trip thanks to the superb organization of Cliff Walker. We enjoyed riding on quiet roads, visiting medieval towns and subterranean caves. The hills and valleys were beautiful and the ride challenging at times but the bikes were excellent and we knew that at the end of the day there was a cold beer, a delicious dinner and a warm bed waiting for us. Thank you Cliff and Annie for your assistance and willingness to help in any way you could. We appreciated the meticulous planning and will be back to ride another day. We loved the Lot. Janet And John
Toni Suddes
Toni Suddes
Johannesburg, South Africa
August 2107
A cycle through south west France, along the Dordogne River, in the most spectacular countryside, was one of the most amazing experiences I've had! Cliff designed a spectacular route, chose amazing family owned hotels in the most picturesque towns with mind blowing historical sites en route. The dinners included in the package our group chose were sublime! Visiting other parts of the world, we experience global culture, global food and products etc. This trip was everything and only French - french people, french culture, french food, french products, french countryside and more. If you want to experience France, this is the way to do it - on a bicycle and on an organised trip with the professional team - Cliff and Annie.
Ashley Truscott
Ashley Truscott
Johannesburg, South Africa
August 2017
Dear Cliff This was honestly one of the best holidays I've ever had. Your choice of hotels was outstanding, the food was incredible, the scenery magnificent and the cycling just comfortable/challenging enough. Thank you so much for all you did to make it such a fabulous experience. I hope to send many friends your way; and of course to come back myself some day soon.
Duane and Donna Smelser-Domila
Duane and Donna Smelser-Domila
Portland, Oregon, USA
August 2017
Without fail, every expectation we had about this trip was far surpassed. Cliff took care of us from the moment we arrived till the morning we departed for Paris. Every accommodation, every meal was like living a dream. The riding was simply pleasurable and one amazing view after another. Even the handful of hills that were challenging for us and our companions David and Elaine on our tandem bikes, what we found at the top, and experienced on the way down, more than made up for our efforts (i.e. Rocamadour, St. Circ Lapopie, Figeac). Stunning beauty, master artisans and artists, mind blowing history, to die for food, and the most memorable experiences of the French people we met. We love the generosity and warm welcome they gave us. We will most definitely be back and we are raving fans of Cliff and Annie's Cycle-the-Dordogne

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