Travels in the Dordogne

After a dull-as-dishwater week in Berlin, we were looking forward to a week in the French countryside. And we weren’t disappointed. We’ve fallen in love with a little part of paradise – along with anyone who’s ever been there I suspect.

We flew into Bordeaux airport, grabbed a hire car, then proceeded to spend several hours getting lost on our way to a medieval cottage, in the medieval village, Berbiguières. I was the navigator, but take no responsibility for the slightly circuitous route we traversed – apparently if you take the far right lane at the toll station, you can’t return to the motorway – ever. Perhaps the sign above the toll lane mentioned that – but it was in French. Once the frustration of being lost wore off, we were mesmerised by the lush green forests, narrow country lane ways, grazing cattle, rolling hills, and stone cottages. And an occasional castle on a hill.

We arrived much later than expected, and after the enchanting drive, were excited to get to the village. Nestled beneath the large chateau, are twenty or so stone cottages arrayed like a horse shoe under the high stone walls and ivy of the chateau fortifications. We wandered down the lane to our little piece of South France and arrived utterly exhausted. I opened the door to our cottage and was struck by the smell. It wasn’t pleasant. A heady mix of musty and dusty, and cloying heat after spending 48 hours locked up in a heatwave. I managed a brave face for all of 15 minutes while exploring the layout, before having a complete meltdown. It felt filthy – it wasn’t. But the smell and the heat and the occasional cobweb, coupled with the master bedroom being underground, (and me being utterly exhausted), launched me into emotional overdrive. I sobbed my way through the next hour, downed enough medications to tranquilise a medieval horse, and went to bed fully clothed from head to toe.

I awoke a little groggy, but a lot more reasonable. In the light of day the cottage was very rustic, but spotlessly clean and very well stocked. I opted to move into the upstairs bedroom – despite my husband’s repeated warnings of “heat rising”. I was much happier having daylight and airflow.

The views from our little windows were spectacular – we were in quintessential French countryside, with no evidence of modernity to be seen. Just green hills, stone cottages and slate roofs. The only sound – cooing doves and mooing cows.

Our first morning we visited the Saint Cyprien farmers market. Oh my lord – how fabulous! I’d heard French farmers markets were pretty special, but they really are pretty special. The produce and the atmosphere, and the cheese and strawberries and nectarines and sausages and tomatoes and baguettes and yoghurt and more cheese and we were in gastronomic heaven!

The rest of our week was spent sampling delicious foods everywhere – even supermarket pastries and cheeses were exceptional – and driving around the countryside discovering castles, caves and cobblestone streets.

The Chateau of Biron is set high on a hill, with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. The castle is a mix of restored, and yet-to-be-restored, and is for the most part pared back to bare rooms. We loved it. The spiral staircases, enormous fireplaces, long drop toilets, parquetry flooring,  overgrown ivy, stunning chapel, and the ever present cobblestone paths. I’ve visited castles with replica (and occasionally original) period furniture, but it was surprisingly refreshing to see the castle in it’s naked state. The giant kitchen was a sight to behold, with it’s brick stove housing twelve cast iron pot rings, and a huge well partially hidden that opened into a large tub for washing, and drained into an outlet down the centre of the kitchen. Very clever. Very magnificent. And very, very big.

After the castle, we visited an airshow – at my husband’s request. The French do magnificent food and wine, but their organisational skills are truly appalling. The circuitous deviation to the airfield added a good half hour to the trip, before we ended up in a one hour queue, on a tiny little dirt road, with several thousand other would-be airshow enthusiasts. When we finally made it to the airfield, we ate lunch in the scorching heat, searched in vain for a small piece of shade, my husband declared the planes “uninteresting” (they’re all just planes I said…) and we left. Once past those still trying to get in, we turned left instead of right, and were once again free to admire the beautiful French countryside. We popped into the cottage, grabbed our swimwear, and headed down to the Dordogne river to cool off, while watching the canoes slowly paddle down in the distance. It was heavenly.

Most of our days were long and full of exploring villages at leisure – Sarlat, Agen, Belves, Saint Cyprien. We spent one long day visiting the incredible Padirac Caves – along with a few thousand of our best friends. The caves were an absolute sight to behold. We almost didn’t stay to visit as the crowds were overwhelming, the heat was overwhelming, and finding a cafe with wait staff to take our order proved impossible. But none-the-less, I insisted we’d driven all that way so we would damn well buy the ticket and go in. They’re indescribably beautiful so I shan’t endeavour to describe them. If you’re in France, give them a visit.

The following day we visited Grottes Prehistorique Cougnac – with it’s prolific cave formations and then eye-opening cave paintings that were 30,000 years old. 30,000 years… I can’t get my head around it really. It really gives a whole new meaning to “permanent marker”.

By the time we left the Dordogne, we were replete with old buildings, ancient caves, prehistoric drawings, winding roads, cobblestone lanes, canopies of green forests, juicy nectarines, pungent cheeses, delectable aperitifs and just an overall sense of being at peace with the world.

From Berbiguières it was a return trip to Bordeaux for our next adventures in the city of love – Paris.

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