Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Beynac-et-Cazenac, France: Old and Ancient Along the Dordogne

Leaving the city of Bordeaux we made one bridge crossing over the Garonne River and a left turn, and soon we were following the trace of another former railway converted to a bike trail.  This one followed the Dordogne River, the waterway that would guide our travels for the next week.
Following the rail trail that crosses the vineyards of the Bordeaux region.
Bordeaux is a city, but it also is a famous wine-producing region.  On our first day we cycled past vineyard after vineyard and a few industrial wineries with huge upside-down cone-shaped vats.  Only certain grapes are grown in certain areas, and slight variations in aspect and elevation create microclimates that define the local character of the wine.  Be assured we are doing our research, making a point to buy wines as local as possible.  The campground we stayed at in Ste. Foy sold bottles in the reception office from a vineyard up the hill for 5€ apiece.  Our host at the campground says you can buy wine at a winery, but often it will cost 5 or 10€ a bottle more than at the local grocery store.  So now my wine-buying technique is to walk up and down the wine aisle at the supermarket, find the region I wish to explore and look for the shelf with gaps where a particular label is selling well.  Usually these are priced at 5€ or less.  Sure, there are more expensive bottles, but we have yet to drink a wine we haven’t liked.  

Almost a month of good weather ended with a midday rainstorm.  We found shelter beneath a limestone overhang, which also serves as half the roof and a wall for this storage shed.

A gray day along the Dardogne River.

A few geese, unaware of their fate.
This is also foie gras country.  Signs were everywhere for local producers, and entire shelves are dedicated to duck and geese products in the local stores.  We did buy a small tin of foie gras mousse, which is basically whipped duck fat flavored with foie gras.  I admit it was mighty tasty and just a schmear on a piece of bread was sufficient.  Washed down with some of that wine and those tired muscles are almost forgotten.
Wisteria vines were blooming everywhere along our route.
We made a detour to the town of Montignac along the Vézère, a tributary of the Dordogne.  We took the tour of Grotte de Lascaux II, a reproduction of a cave where Cro-Mognon art dating to 17,000 years ago were found.  The original cave was discovered in 1940 by a couple of teenagers.  The young son of our host in Ste. Foy told us a classmate of his was the great-grandson of one of those discoverers.  The original cave was open to the public until 1963 but closed to preserve the paintings from the affects of humidity and its associated fungi. Twenty years later this exhibit was opened, an exact replica of two of the most significant rooms.  The tour was in English and the cave was fascinating...bulls and horses drawn using the shape of the caves to define a third dimension to the figures, in multiple hues, one of only three caves in France with polychromatic art.  We arrived thinking this was the cave featured in Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotton Dreams”, and during the tour we were scratching our head -- it looked different than what we remembered from the film.  Only later we read that the film featured the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc discovered in 1994 with paintings over 30,000 years old.  So this tour was a bonus, a view of another cave equally as fascinating.
We rented a mobile home in Montignac for two nights to escape a rain event.  Every campground we have visited so far has these units available to rent, quaintly efficient and equipped with a bathroom and kitchen two bedrooms.  A nice haven for weary cyclists escaping weather.
A misty morning leaving Montignac.

The Dordogne produces more walnuts than any other region in France.  The trees are just barely beginning to bud.
Crossing back to the valley of the Dordogne required a couple of days and a few good climbs.  On the way was the town of Sarlat-la-Canéda and its medieval center.  The town is a tourist destination with the typical cafés and souvenir shops, so I pointed the camera up above the shop canopies.  We pushed the bikes through narrow corridors to find hidden courtyards.  Our campground that night was located on a impossibly steep hill that required both of us to dismount and push our bikes up.  But it was a lovely place with expansive views to the north where we watched the clouds of the weather system that had been hovering over us depart.
Our bikes are small compared to the walls of Sarlat.
Old and weathered building in Sarlat, kind of like us.

A gracious madame offered to take our picture in a narrow street in Sarlat.
The Dordogne Valley is rich with chateaus and fortresses dating back to the 13th century, many of which are open to visit for a fee.  We looked through the list and picked Château de Beynac, only a short distance from our camp outside Sarlat.  It was a misty morning as we dropped down to the level of the Dordogne.  We turned around the bend just as the fog was lifting, and there was the castle, perched on a limestone cliff like out of a fairy tale.  And way up on a hill, so we followed an access road that had, thankfully, a forgiving grade to the top.  The attendant let us park our bikes within the fortress walls (which should be safe, don’t you think?).  We were early and it felt like we had the place to ourselves.  The fortress was beautifully restored and sparsely furnished with a few tables, benches and tapestries.  Restoration work was being done in a few places, and according to the sign, would be completed in 2030 -- job security for a few stone masons.
Magical misty morning view of Château de Beynac.

Formidable fortress built on a foundation of solid limestone.

The Dordogne and the fortress.

Stairs shaped by centuries of use.
Classic architectural features from the highest point of the fortress.

Wouldn't you say this is straight down?

The Dordogne River and the chapel.

Stone roof of the fortress chapel.
We wandered for a couple of hours and taking lots of pictures and imagining the past. Getting down we took the direct route on a cobblestone path that turned to steps that were so steep John had to grab the back of my bike to control my descent.  Like going down a rabbit hole, traveling from ancient to old and back to the modern world.
Happy campers!

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Ann said...

You are taking awesome pictures! What a great adventure!

Joe Blommer said...

I recently read an article about Chauvet Pont d'Arc, which sounded & looked really cool from the photos. I wondered if you would be in the area & you were! Enjoying your blog & photos!

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