Monday, September 05, 2011

Discovering the Dordogne – 24 August 2011

We knew the forecast was for thunderstorms on Wednesday, and we heard some thunder in the distance at midnight, but at 5.30am it started in earnest overhead. It was such a contrast to the perfect sunset the evening before. The lighting and thunder playing games with us, sometimes nearly overhead, then moving away, only to come back again. It played this game over and over, to the accompaniment of torrential rain.
After a couple of hours, it stopped and we hastily began breaking up camp. We had only got as far as the bedding and inner tent, when it returned. So we relocated to the camp buildings for breakfast, then used the next lull to roll up the very soggy tent and put in a large plastic bag. We then had a shower while the rain continued to provide nature's shower, and we were off in the rain. Fortunately the thunderstorms had moved away and after a few false starts, the sun came out more and more frequently.

The Dordogne river valley starts to get more interesting after Bergerac. This town has a beautifully restored old centre. We passed through several pleasant country towns, and the visual treats really kick in once you get to Castelnaud. But just before that, we made a diversion to visit Les Milandes. This is a romantic looking castle in a wonderful position, high above the Dordogne Valley. The castle was the home of Josephine Baker, an American who found fame as a Paris cabaret singer and exotic dancer. The story of her life and the costumes she was famous for, made the visit very interesting.

Our lunch stop (we had intended to eat at the castle, but lunch waits were 45 minutes) was Castelnaud, just down the road. This stunning spot beside the river, has the most essential picnic asset – a great patisserie (in fact we bought lunch here three days running – great walnut tarts, walnuts are one of the specialities of the area). After our riverside picnic, we set off to visit the Marqueyssac Gardens.
We had seen pictures on the Web, and they are stunning for those (like us) who are captivated by clipped box hedges. The gardens were developed for 30 years from 1861 by Julien deCerval, abandoned and then in 1996 restored to their former glory. The chateaux and gardens occupy the entire flat area at the top of a massive cliff – in fact an entire flat topped mountain.
A very strategic spot above the river. A military owner before Julien, moved 2500 tons of rock to make a large straight ride, to exercise his cavalry charger. A track navigated the cliff top, and from a belvedere at the far end, we looked down on the stunning village of La Roque-Gageac and close by, a camp site, also on the banks of the Dordogne.

After exploring the gardens, we drove back to the river and managed to secure a riverside site at the campground. As we planned to stay for two nights, its position was brilliant, right in the heart of the most interesting part of the Dordogne, on the river and near a 'must visit' village.

We erected the very wet outer shell of our tent, and set of to explore Sarlat, 10k away. We had visited this by chance in an earlier visit to France, but not explored the surrounding area. We were very impressed by Sarlat last visit, so were interested to see if second impressions after seven more year's of travelling, matched our first. The quick answer is 'yes', Sarlat is definitely a must visit village when in the Drodogne. It is full of wonderful medieval buildings, a large square and masses of narrow fascinating streets.

Back at the campground, we made our way along the river to our own stunning village – La Roque Gageac. This beautiful village is built on pretty much a steer cliff, there is just enough space between the buildings and the drop into the river to fit two lanes of traffic, but no footpaths so it is “walk, or drive, with care”. Up above the river side buildings, narrow paths lead to a beautiful small châteaux, a church and houses. We dined beneath an ivy clad châteaux, on the rooftop terrace of a restaurant, our table right above the Dordogne. We were able to dine and watch a group of six balloons rise from the other side of the river.

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