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Dordogne 2008 Travel Journal and photos

It was to be a water-logged journey. I had flown to Bordeaux-Marignac for my March break, landing under a darkening sky which threatened rain. After re-charging in Bordeaux, I was eager to explore the Gironde Estuary, formed by the meeting of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers as they flow northwest past Bordeaux into the Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 50 miles long and 5 miles wide, it is one of the largest estuaries in Europe and subject to strong tidal currents. Indeed, the swirling, murky, swiftly moving water smelled of the ocean. Paralleling the estuary are roads which link towns and villages like necklaces. Dodging rain drops that were starting to fall, I followed the eastern shore route into an area nicknamed "le Petit Nice," so-called because its micro-climate sustained palm trees, tropical-looking vines and luxuriant flowers. Numerous fishing huts on stilts (called carrelets, typical of the estuary and considered local heritage treasures) appeared rather precariously perched above the river. Supporting large, pulley-operated nets, carrelets are vital for fishing during high tides: nets are lowered into the churning waters and then raised full of shrimp, shad, and lamprey eels, which supply local restaurants.
Heavier rain followed me as I headed into the Périgord, a region crossed by several rivers including the Dordogne, which formed the historic frontier between France and England during the Hundred Years War, and the Vézère, along which many of the great prehistoric caves of Southwest France are located. The Périgord is subdivided into four areas: Vert (Green), Blanc (White), Noir (Black) and Pourpre (Purple). These color designations correspond to the local natural environments in each area: Green, from the chestnut and oak forests common there; White, from the chalky limestone; Black, from the dark oak forests that support the truffles grown there; and Purple, from the vineyards and subsequent wine produced in the region. The Périgord is also known as the “cradle of mankind” due to the wealth of prehistoric sites, the most famous of which is the painted cave of Lascaux, with its depictions of bison, stags, horses, deer, aurochs, and enigmatic symbols. Of course, you cannot visit the real cave, only Lascaux II, a meticulous reproduction twelve years in the making, duplicating every aspect of two of the main caves, the Bull’s Chamber and the Axial Gallery. I waited in a soggy line under a leaky tent for my timed entry, listening to the multitude of languages spoken under umbrellas dodging the torrential rain that was now falling. Once inside the complex, the museum included visual information on how the facsimile was built, a project almost as interesting as the reproductions themselves, painted by 20 professional artists using the same materials as the early painters. Naturally, it’s not the same as descending down into a dark, damp cave and seeing the “real thing” but it’s a pretty impressive reproduction, far more accessible for everyone and anyway, I was already damp.
Four million years ago a vast sea covered the south west of France. As it began to retreat over the millennia, watersheds left behind coursed through the porous limestone. Early dwellers were able to cut into the soft stone, forming complex, cave-like shelters which proved to be ideal dwellings as they had a ceiling and a floor and were only accessible by water. As water continued to recede, these rock-hewn dwellings became perched and lower villages were built along the newer course of the rivers. A fascinating place is the troglodyte village of La Madeleine, built during the incursions of the Saracens and Vikings who sailed on the Vézère and the Dordogne during the 8th and 9th century! In pouring rain, I explored the remains of a Gothic castle, built over the original village in the 15th century, including a tiny chapel created from a corner of a cave, which merged into a later period of limestone blocks and real glass window panes. The small town of les Eyzies de Tayac is known as the capital of prehistory and home to the newly rebuilt Musée National de Préhistoire (National Museum of Pre-History), housed in a beautiful contemporary building built into the cliffs above the village. Displaying a rich array of six million objects, some dating back 40,000 years, it is one of the world’s most important museums concerning the pre-history of man. Hours later, I emerged into a gentle rain that seemed to be lessening.
Along the banks of the Dordogne are numerous châteaux (castles) which were witness to centuries of conquests and the intermixing of cultures. I visited Beynac-et-Cazenac at a moment in which the sun was struggling to emerge. A cobblestoned street connected the lower village to the château and from the top, views of the sodden valley were slowly revealed. Emerging through veils of white mist, the river far below was overflowing its banks in places, engulfing trees and fields and making the ribbon of winding water appear much wider than normal. La Roque-Gageac lay closer to the river, the cliffs behind the village sheltering it from the cold weather blowing from the north. On the swollen river-side of the road, traditional gabare (flat-bottomed sailing barges) were moored in anticipation of warmer months ahead.
One of my favorite places was Brantôme, a riverside village featuring a Benedictine Abbey (re-built numerous times) whose Romanesque bell-tower is one of the oldest in France. A right-angled bridge over a spill-way connects the abbot’s lodging with a garden on the opposite bank of the Dronne River. I stayed in a renovated 17th century mill overlooking the river and abbey, Le Moulin de l’Abbaye, with a wonderful restaurant. My warm foie gras was delicious but my charming room was chilly, reminding me of the vagaries of traveling in the off-season. I took another blanket out of the armoire and longed to visit on a warm, sunny day when I might sit outside on my room’s riverside terrace with a book and drink at hand, listening to the gurgling river below. Other destinations included Sarlat-le-Canéda, a well-preserved medieval town bustling with people even in the cold drizzle, and Bergerac, whose medieval town center has a statue immortalizing its famous son, Cyrano (who quite possibly never set foot there!) Between les Eyzies de Tayac and Sarlat are the amazing Manor d'Eyrignac and Gardens, a 17th-century manor house surrounded by a recreated 18th-century Italian Renaissance garden and an elaborate topiary garden. The house is sited on top of a hill, with water coming from seven springs. Eyrignac in Occitan means “where the water flows” and it seemed an aptly-named theme for my trip.
But all this chilly dampness had not quelled my love for driving around the French countryside. It was Easter time and shops displayed signs celebrating Bonne Pâques and small, chocolate animals and eggs nestled in pastel-colored grass. Farms offered early products of miel (honey), fromage (cheese) and agneau (spring lamb) and villages had cheery containers of pansies, cyclamen and tulips on display, a welcome sign of spring. Too soon, it was time to return to Bordeaux to catch the first leg of my return. Changing planes in Paris, I encountered massive queues at all customs and check-in points and nearly missed my flight home. Wet as it had been, spring break was definitely a popular time to be in France!
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Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008

 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Dordogne, 2008
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