Friday, February 18, 2011

Sarlat and the Dordogne

The Dordogne Valley is home to foie gras, walnuts, truffles, cave paintings and us for a week. People have lived in this area for over ten thousand years. We spent our time here in a little town named Sarlat-le-Caneda. It has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Our place was just lovely. An English couple had restored an old barn and the loving care put into the restoration plus the attention to amenities (It had English TV!) made this one of our better weeks.

The Dordogne is well known for producing several different gourmet foods. First, it is the centre of fois gras country and we tried not to get too close to the details of that. While the town practically worships geese, it is not on the goose tourist map. Geese have been traded here for centuries and one can’t get far without tripping over a tin of fois gras. We tried some and it was quite yummy. This is also a big truffle area and winter is truffle season. Truffles are in the neighbourhood of $750/kg so we didn’t test those. We did try some truffle flavoured chocolate covered nuts, however. They were yummy. Nuts also figure prominently on the “things the Dordogne does well” list. They even have a “Routes des Noix”, or Nut Drive which we naturally found ourselves following on more than one occasion. No comments, please.

Sarlat was just as cute as a town could be, with twisty old streets lined with fairytale like structures. It had a distinct Italian feel to it and with good reason. Catherine de Medici, a powerful mistress to one of the Kings (more on her later, I’m sure) had a boyfriend who was an Italian Bishop and she set him up here in Sarlat. There are so many things morally wrong in that sentence, it begs a story. Just to further whet your appetite for that tale, the Italian Bishop stole the Sarlat’s money and ran away, leaving behind a town rich in Italian architecture, if not gold. It was fun rounding each corner of the narrow streets to reveal yet another charming scene. I mean, get a load of those crazy church doors in the picture to the right.

We all agreed Sarlat was the best place to stay but it had some stiff competition for “cute”. Driving around the valley, we came upon so many picturesque scenes it would be hard to describe them all. The most fantastic part of this was probably the fact that it was early February and the weather was spectacular and warm. I can imagine how gorgeous this place would be in the summer time but so can about a zillion other tourists and I think the crowds would detract from the charm.

The weather is probably one of the reasons people have inhabited this area for so long. The high cliffs on either side provide natural protection from the elements. There are caves where people and other animals have lived over the millennia. Even during the second ice age the inhabitants of this area were able to survive as the valley never completely froze. A narrow strip of vegetation provided snacks for all. A wide, slow river that flows through the area created an easy transportation route along the valley as well as providing a fresh water source. With its steep, high sides the animals would be channeled through the valley, so the people had the food coming right to their doorstep rather than having to seek it out. This has been the perfect home for almost as long as people have been around.

Roque Gageac is a town build between a lovely river and a cliff. There is just enough room to fit the road, which floods every winter after a heavy rain, and a line of buildings before one has to start moving up the side of the cliff if one wishes to reside here. One building even shows the record high water marks. The 1940’s really weren’t a great time for France. Okay, so this is a VERY cute place but whose idea was it to build in a spot with so little space? What kind of a defense system does one employ when one’s back is to the wall? We can only surmise that the town planners were way ahead of their time and realized what a great little tourist trap they had created. While the rock may not have been very forgiving space-wise, it did provide heat and this town is able to grow tropical plants that won’t grow easily anywhere else around. The picture on the right looks like a different country, n'est-ce pas? Lastly, I just had to include this picture of the Leper House. The town didn’t win any friendliness awards back in the day as visitors who arrived in times of plague had their boats confiscated and were thrown into the leper house for a time to see if they carried any disease with them. Fortunately, the town was fairly disease free when we visited so we didn’t see the inside of this building.

The Dordogne Valley is also filled with castles. In France we call them chateaus. My favourite chateaus were very close to each other. One was the Castelnaud (on the right) and the other Beynac. Castelnaud perched high on a cliff overlooking the river. So did Beynac. They were about a 10 minute horseback ride from each other, so close together you can almost wave to each other from the turrets. What I liked about them is their history. During the Hundred Years War, the French occupied Beynac on one side of the river and the English occupied Castlenaud on the other side. But that wasn’t good enough, so the English built a second castle on their side of the river, closer to Beynac so they could spy on the French. Not to be outdone, the French built a second castle closer to Castelnaud in order to spy on the English. The ridiculousness of this given the situation of the river and the castles still amuses me.

Castelnaud had a great tour with lots of interesting weaponry from the middle ages. Beynac (on the left), however, was my favourite of the two. I love the fact that the French occupied it because it looks just like the castle Monty Python’s gang clip-clops up to during the quest for the Holy Grail. Standing on the grass below, I could easily imagine the French soldiers glaring disdainfully over the edge casting aspersions on the hapless English knights. It is the straight-walled castle we build with Lego bricks and there is something completely familiar about it, though it in no way resembles the fairytale castles in which princesses lived. Perhaps it is the male equivalent.

There were plenty of other adorable towns. Martel with its towers, Carennac with its completely captivating creekside settings and Rocamadour, the pilgrimage site built up the side of a cliff. Each town had something unique to offer and each was a delight to explore but in the end, we were glad we had based ourselves in Sarlat.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what your neighbours will do when you start changing things on your own home! :0 Love Mom

Steve said...

You have done a great job of getting off the beaten track. Most of the places you have visited are places I have never even heard of, but clearly there is charm and value. Now I just need to work on getting a year off work, and getting two teenagers to come with us....

Mynnette said...

wow- Jim and I sure missed some great places!Love all your descriptions, noticing differences, etc. Wish I had been there WITH you! XX Mynnette