A group of six of us had decided to take an express visit to the Dordogne valley in south western France. It was a bit like being in the ‘Secret Seven’ but we were one short. We were only going to be there for three days but we wanted to see as much as we could of this stunningly beautiful piece of countryside. We were not going to be disappointed.
We flew from London Stansted airport to Brive la Gaillarde in the Limousin region. The flight was the inaugural service by Ryanair and this now operates twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The journey was splendid. The aircraft departed exactly on time and the cabin crew provided a perfect service. We arrived during the late afternoon and set off in our bus to discover Brive.
We had arranged to visit the Denoix distillery in the town centre. We thought that a tasting of the produce here was probably the best way to start any French visit. The distillery also functions as an active museum and can be visited by anybody. The Denoix family has operated the business for four generations and much of their family history of the previous 170 years is presented. Aperitifs and liqueurs are produced from varieties of the regional walnuts just as they always have been from the distilleries inception in the nineteenth century. Our testing of the produce helped us to quickly relax into our new, brief adventure in the Dordogne valley. The Denoix distillery sells 70,000 bottles of the digestive spirit a year in both Paris and the local Brive area. It contributes much to the local character and culture.
Early the next morning we set off for the villages of Turenne and Collonges la Rouge, not very far away. Both of these places are on the official list of France’s most beautiful villages. They both functioned as symbolic monuments to the Dordogne valley’s reputation.
Turenne and Collonges la Rouge are built on the local limestone. The buildings though are constructed from the locally quarried sandstone and their red colour blended so wonderfully with the spring tones and shades of the countryside. These villages are quaint and charming and all survive on their local craft, agriculture and service based economies. Many of the older buildings have access points in their roofs to collect quantities of wild pigeon droppings that are used as fertiliser on the farmland. What a splendid green economy!
We strolled along the narrow lanes of the villages and took coffee in a rather tiny and concealed cafe. Next, we set off towards the town of Beaulieu sur Dordogne. It was approaching lunch time and we wanted to inspect the historic Renaissance House before dining. The renaissance or re-berth represented a significant change of history and culture in France during the fifteenth century. The house contains many symbols of this era including a listed fireplace monument representing scenes from the Garden of Eden. Displays of mannequins, antiques, floors and woodwork indicating life style scenes of the Bellocoise nobility are so well exhibited on many floors. As a group, we walked along the banks of the flowing Dordogne in Beaulieu before lunch and sensed the peaceful calm of the green Limousin region.
A classic French lunch in a local restaurant with regional wine followed. I tried the locally harvested truffles from under the surrounding chestnut trees. I quickly began to acquire the taste and France could not have been better. We were looking forward, I with some trepidation, to a bizarre experience that had been threatened for the afternoon.
We prepared ourselves for the next adventure on our visit. It was off to the great sink hole at Padirac or the ‘Gouffre de Padirac’. Far back in the mists of time, a large chunk of the Dordogne limestone had just collapsed leading to a vast cavity under the ground. The depths of it were hidden and murky and it was only properly explored about 120 years ago. A vast cavern of underground limestone stalactites, stalagmites and watercourses were revealed over a hundred meters below the surface. We all descended gingerly via steep steps and lifts to the very bowels of the damp and dark depths. We were to be taken on a guided tour.
Part of the journey took place on a boat along the waterways. There was primitive life in the water of shrimps and snails. It was like being on a strange and faraway planet. For me, it felt almost like being in my grave as though I had died. The rock formations were strange and eerie; it was dark damp and silent. As we approached the end of the tour, I saw a sculptured bust of the explorer, Edouard-Alfred Martel, emerging from the rancid limestone. I thought for a moment that it was Saint Peter barring my passage across the pearly gates. I needed something strong and French in a glass to settle my nerves.
We all stayed that night in Rocamadour, a town just a little south of Brive. Rocamadour is literally sculptured on to the side of rock face providing fortification against marauders. As we approached the town in our bus, the sight of Rocamadour pasted on to the side of the cliff was remarkable. It ought to have slipped off to the rocks below centuries ago. It was still here though, full of busy French life and history. Rocamadour is where Christianity came to France and its foundations seemed eternal. Dinner and wine in the hotel that evening was excellent of course. We all got ready to get up early the next morning to set off again.
The ‘Gardens of Marqueyssac’ were next on the list. These occupy a very carefully tended and sculptured parkland area set on a vast rock outcrop high above the Dordogne countryside. The gardens contain over 150,000 boxwood trees and a mass of aesthetic, hedge based topiary. The area is large and the sweeping view of the terrain, far below, will take your breath away. It certainly did for me so if you visit, take your binoculars. The gardens are privately owned but always open for public visits. They are just perfect for children to play in and enjoy.
Our trip continued. We visited the Chateau de Castlenaud and watched a demonstration of ancient trebuchets firing weaponry. We travelled onto La Roque Gageac and took a boat trip along a very amicable stretch of the Dordogne River, the cleanest in Europe. La Roque Gageac village is the third most visited in France. You can see why as it just seems to just sprout out of its supporting cliff like a newly emerging bed of crops.
We moved to a town called Sarlat-la-Caneda for our final night before travelling back the next afternoon. Sarlet for me was the star of the show. The market in the streets was awash with the most vivid of French life. It was a small town that seemed to provide domicile to humanity in its most wholesome form. The greatest and most simple of all human pleasures and experience existed right there, in the streets, in front of our eyes. Sarlet- la- Caneda seemed to represent all of our expectations of our visit to the Dordogne valley district.
For us in our little group, the visit was an express view of the very portrait of the French Dordogne. I shall go again when I can and find more time to savour the essence of dearest, rural France once more. I shall admire the countryside, drink the wine, dine in the restaurants and observe all of the people going about their lives. St. Peter though, will have to keep his pearly gates to himself for a little longer.