Drive through the Dordogne Valley
4 Sep 2012
|Today is a long day of driving, as we’re heading through the Dordogne Valley and ending up in Toulouse, via Rocamadour.
We left Perigueux about 9am, and were faced with a reasonably long wait to get back across the river due to what looked like road works. When we drove past however, we noticed that they had a lot of hoses leading into the sewerage system......perhaps it wasn’t the river that was so stinky last night during dinner.
Ali had to drive through the horror roundabout, and back through the town. We got back onto the same road as last night, which had all of the beautiful scenery of hills and trees. We’d driven about half an hour, when I asked to pull over to look at the GPS. It had us now going in a northerly direction, and I knew that we had to go in a south easterly direction to get to Beynac.
The GPS had “Beynac” as its destination, so I zoomed all the way out of the planned route, and saw it had us going near Limoges, which was a town we went around last night. It also showed the end of the route just outside Limoges. So, after looking at the map again, and double checking, it definitely said Beynac. So, I started to re-program the GPS destination, and when I entered “Beynac” I found 3 towns with the same name, although some had a suffix.
Ali had also bought and packed a road atlas of Europe, so we looked in it, and saw the same thing. So, I looked up one of the other towns near where Beynac was, and saw that in the atlas, Beynac was actually called “Beynac-et –Cazenac (or Beynac and Cazenac in English). The town “Beynac” was outside Limoges. We were driving to the wrong town.
So, we picked “Beynac-et-Cazenac”, and Tomtom asked us to turn the car around, and head back to Perigueux. We decided where there was a fork in the road, to veer left instead of right, as both roads led to Perigueux (we used the right fork the previous night). There was a big sign saying “Perigueux” where the left hand road was, so, at least we’d be seeing something different.
The GPS had us cutting through some back roads of France again, and whilst it was beautiful countryside, and we passed another couple of chateau\castles along the way. It took maybe an hour or so longer, and we started to see signs for some of the towns along the way to Beynac. We also crossed a bridge over a river, which I thought might be the Dordogne, however I found out later it was the Vezere river, which is a tributary to the Dordogne.
A bit further along, we went through the town of Saint Cyprien. It took a while to drive through here, as they had closed most of the main streets in the city for a fair. We were half inclined to stop for a while, but due to the busy day we’d packed in, decided it was best if we kept moving.
Within a few minutes we were facing the sides of cliffs as we drove along the roadway. They were brilliant reds and sandy colours, and then a little further along, we could see the Dordogne river to our right. It took maybe 20 minutes of driving for us to get to “Beynac-et-Cazenac”.
I’ll digress for a minute, to give a little anecdote. We had been planning the trip to France for a while, about 12 months, and as part of the festivities I took Alison to Vue de Monde for her birthday. It’s a fancy restaurant in the Rialto tower. All of the waiting staff there are from France, or appeared to be. We spent a fair bit of time quizzing the waiter about nice places to eat in France (he also recommended a bit of time in Belgium), and what were the best wines to drink in what regions.
He asked us had we decided to go visit the Dordogne Valley at all, and we told him we hadn’t heard of it before. He was born and raised in the area, and he did an absolutely magnificent job of selling us on it. So, when we got home the following day, I looked it up on the web, and found out a host of interesting information and things to see and do.
Of most interest to me, were two things. The first was that a lot of the towns along the river were part of an independent association called “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” or “The most beautiful villages in France”. The association judges the towns on their heritage, their culture and their architecture amongst other factors.
The second thing, were the townships called “Bastides”. Bastides were small fortified villages, and they exist in the south west of France. They started appearing when one of the counts of Toulouse decided to consolidate the control of his region. Bastides were used to gather taxes when feudalism started wane in importance.
The idea was that the Bastide would allow people to move into an area where they would be protected. They then became free men, rather than the citizens being sworn allegiance to a lord. The citizens would then be encouraged to farm outside the bastide walls, and sell their goods in the town marketplace. The landowner of the bastide then took a tax on the sale of the goods, whereas previously they were taxed on what they produced. These types of towns were specific to the region, so they brought some interest of their own.
Beynac-et-Cazenac was a member of the beautiful villages association. It was blatantly obvious to see why. The village is, typically for the region, built onto the side of the mountains. The cliff face is mainly (I don’t know this for sure, I was just told it by someone there) limestone. Due to its proximity to the village (they’re on top of it!) the buildings in the town all appear to be made out of limestone too. Almost all of the buildings (or all of the ones I could see) had reddish roof tiles on top of them. The city was bit in medieval times, somewhere between the years 1100-1200AD. If you can picture it, the houses are the colour of the pyramids in Egypt, with red roof tiles.
Above the village, is the castle\fortress ”Chateau Beynac”. It stood sternly over the town, with a sheer cliff on the village side, apparently the only way you can access the chateau is from the other side of the mountain\hill. We pulled up in the car, and paid the obligatory 2 euro parking fee for an hour to take it in. I was a bit hungry as it was now after midday, and we hadn’t eaten anything, so we stopped for lunch.
We found a restaurant on the side of the road, which overlooked the river. We picked a table which was close to the river, and ordered our meals. The food was, well, very average. I had a steak entrecote with salad, and Ali had a steak hache (hamburger patty) and salad. The food was made to taste worse by the fact we had a European wasp flying around our heads pretty much the entire time. We put our bread plates over the top of our glasses, to prevent it from going in our soft drinks.
Feeling thoroughly ripped off, as the Dordogne is part of the Perigord region. The Perigord is an area known for its gastronomique cuisine. This region is home to several gourmet products, including Fois gras, truffles as well as duck and goose meat. The Bergerac area also makes some very nice wine too. We got none of that in our lunch. We decided we’d head off, so that we could get into the site seeing.......there was only one problem. No one wanted us to pay.
We’d asked our waitress 4 times for “l’addition” or the bill. Each time she would cross the road, and go into the Inn adjacent, and come out and say it was coming. We asked the male waiter for the bill. He said the same thing too. In the end, I went in to ask for the bill, and was told to return to the table, they’d bring it in a couple of minutes. I came back out and sat down, and 5-10 minutes later, Ali gave up and walked in. She said no one had printed the bill when she got there, so she asked them to print it immediately, and she paid so we could leave.
Time was a bit short, and we still had a lot to go, so Ali asked if we could move to the next town – La Roque Gageac. La Roque is also a member of the beautiful towns association, and I thought it was every bit as pretty, if not moreso than Beynac. Similiar to Beynac it was built into the side of a cliff face, which was a couple of hundred meters tall.
As we arrived in the area, we were greeted by the town fort, which wasn’t on top of the cliff like Beynac, but was equally imposing. A little bit further along, we parked the car, and turned back to look at the village. It was much closer to the river than Beynac, and a not as high above the river, or so it appeared.
The buildings were similar in colour to Beynac, again the sandy yellow colour, with red rooftops. One of the highlights of the trip to La Roque however, which we didn’t see in Beynac (possibly because we didn’t really look around), were shops selling regional specialities. They sold truffles and truffle products, fois gras from ducks and geese, as well as oils. We bought some fois gras and got some souvenirs we’d try bring home (2 cans of goose fois gras).
If there’s one thing that seems to be very popular in the area, it’s canoeing or kayaking along the Dordogne River. In the time we were having lunch, about 20 canoes must have gone past, and there were at least as many doing the same in La Roque Gageac. As a matter of fact, people seemed to be hiring the canoes there, and going downstream.
After leaving part of our souvenir funds behind for the townsfolk, we then went on the drive to our first (and only) bastide town – Domme. Unlike between Beynac and La Roque, we didn’t pass any other castles or interesting sites. We were still presented with the same beautiful rock formations and colours of the cliffs however.
Domme is located at the top of a large hill. The drive up to the top, was fairly easy, although the road was narrow. There were a few times where Alison got some very spectacular views of the landscape, and the edge of the mountain as we went up. Usually these didn’t last for very long though. To get into the town, we had to drive through one of the town gates, although this one looks like it may have been modernised a bit, as it wasn’t very ornate.
Inside the roads were very narrow, and it took a few goes of driving around the block to find a car park. When we got out and started walking through the streets, we found the town was a bit like La Roque etc, but without the cliff background. The colours were very similiar, like a lot of French towns, they too had a tourist train which drove around the city, although we didn’t have time to ride around on it.
At the end of the main street was a big square, with an entrance to some caves. I thought that was fairly unusual, that you get to the top of a mountain, go inside a fortified town, then get the chance to go into caves inside. There was a fairly decent queue for this though, so again, another thing we’d skip (not that I’m regretting it though). Not far from the square though, which was surrounded in shops selling Fois gras and truffle products, was a panoramic lookout. We walked over to see it, and I could tell we were quite high up. Well quite high for someone who doesn’t like heights.
The view was spectacular. We could actually see very clearly La Roque Gageac from here, and we could see a considerable length of the Dordogne river. We could also see the majestic stone bridge we drove across before we came up the mountain road. We stayed up here for quite a bit, I took lots of pictures and changed the lens around on the camera a few times to take various things in.
After we’d done this for about half an hour, we both needed to use the bathrooms. Now, I normally wouldn’t go to any length about toilets, but these were QUITE unusual. The toilet block which was about 30m away, was next to a large car park (doh!). There were 6 doors, for people to go in, and then, next to the set of doors on the left was a urinal out in the open. It had little bits of wood so you couldn’t see the side profile of its users, but essentially it looked as though you were peeing in the middle of a street, just with a roof over your head. I wasn’t comfortable using them, but the locals didn’t seem to care.
After we left those shenanigans, we went back to the town square and got some truffles to send back home and started walking back down the street again to where the car was parked. The souvenir shops all seemed to be the same between Beynac, La Roque and Domme. All the same postcards, etc. It’s a shame, but I can see that because they are so small, they have no other alternative.
Along the way up to the lookout, I noticed that they had “artisan ice cream makers” along the street. I thought that this might be one of the famous ice cream makers of France, so I went to take a look. The board had about 40 flavours on it, and some of them sounded unusual and very interesting. I now had ice cream cravings. So I went up to the counter to get my fix, and saw a freezer which had 3 different flavoured ice creams in them. I asked for the flavours I had seen on the board, and got told “no, only these three”. I left a bit disappointed as I wasn’t interested in fig ice cream or the other 2 flavours.
We headed back to the car, with a cool drink and set off for our next destination – Rocamadour. On the way out of Domme, we drove through some very narrow streets, until we got to another city gate. This one was a bit different to the one we entered via. As we drove out, I looked in the rear view mirror, and saw that the gate was quite beautiful, and was one that I had seen in some of the postcards. Ali tried to use my camera to grab a photo, but unfortunately there was absolutely no where to park, and a trail of cars behind us, looking to get down the mountain.
We left the gate behind, and got back to ground level via the windy road. It was a bit later in the afternoon than we had planned originally, but with a detour to the wrong town, and the wasted time waiting for the bill at the restaurant in Beynac, that was to be expected.