Sweat drips off your tired aching body as you stare at another rugged stretch of mountain road; you wonder if you and your beat up bicycle can make the grade. Is this your idea of a good holiday? Me neither!
I love the idea of biking through France, but I also wanted to remain civilized. So I went with Butterfield and Robinson: a Canadian company which has made an international name for itself in luxury bike trips in France.
It doesn't detract from my pleasure to have a friendly guide suggest a pleasant route as long as I have the freedom to go at my own pace and stop where and when I want. My pleasure is not compromised at all by having someone take my bags on ahead to the next château and arrange a gourmet dinner (after a deep hot bath) when I arrive. It also doesn't hurt to be in the Dordogne.
The Dordogne is so beautiful, so unhurried, so historic, so thoroughly pleasant that you could be tempted to believe that the entire region was laid out just to make it perfect country to bike in. It's known in France as the region that time forgot and the motorway missed.
The Dordogne is the province of the goose and the duck: foie gras country. And walnuts, and goat cheeses, and three crops per year of the sweetest strawberries in the world, and wine, always wine, always a different wine to go with each different speciality.
Here the châteaux are not "imposing" the way the famous Loire châteaux can be. Here the châteaux are very large country houses with towers which seem to have been added as gestures to the conventional style. They are homes where real people have lived and still do.
Some are now run as hotels, and they look even better at the end of a day of cycling when you can look up to the windows in the stone walls and wonder "which room will be mine".
Many of the châteaux began as fortified castles during the Hundred Years War: a poor name for 300 years of nasty skirmishes between the French and the British. The war began because the dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine included this area, and her former husband, King Louis VII of France was not pleased when her new husband became King Henry II of England.
One version of the war is that the English wanted the region just so that they could maintain their supply of decent wine.
The Dordogne river was the dividing line between the French and the English. Fortified towns, and castles still bristle and stare across the valley at each other. The heavily armed Château de Castelnaud commands a terrific view of the valley, including the opposing Château de Beynac. Castelnaud changed hands several times during the Hundred Years War, and today, thanks to a careful restoration, you can walk along the parapets from which medieval armies poured boiling oil on one another.
I approached the Castelnaud on my bike and after climbing up the steep incline, I needed a break before I was willing to storm the castle, even with the gates open. On the other hand, my downhill retreat got my two wheels going fast enough that I felt I could have outpaced any rocks shot from the catapults.
The crusades, the châteaux, the Medieval history of the region, and especially tourists on bicycles, are recent arrivals in the life of the Dordogne. Mankind, humanoids to be more accurate, have been inhabiting this area for at least 500,000 years.
The Dordogne is a leisurely, relaxed area today, but 15,000 years ago it was even more restful. Long time Dordogne resident and pre historian Christine Desdemaines Hugon estimates that Cro Magnon man needed to spend only 15 hours a week on his hunting and gathering, leaving the rest of his week free for social and cultural pursuits such as cave painting.
The paintings are the chief legacy we have from those times. The caves are decorated with extremely sophisticated likenesses of reindeer, bison and other animals. The sophisticated use of perspective in these primitive works was not to appear again until the Renaissance. Picasso said that he would not have been able to teach these ancient painters anything new.
Among the pre historic men of the area there is no evidence of man made violence or injury. Cro magnon man's quantity of leisure time and his artistic sophistication lead one to question the "progress" have we made in the last 15,000 years.
Fortunately, the Dordogne, and my luxurious biking trip in particular, provided the answers: foie gras, fresh prunes wrapped in bacon, truffles with eggs, garlic soup mixed with red wine (locally renown as a midnight aphrodisiac), salmon trout tenderly baked in pastry, succulent lamb roasted with garlic, cepes (large local mushrooms), duck and goose magret (pressed and aged breast) served rare.
A creme brulé presented in the château dining room looking like something you'd use to cover a pothole but tasted even better than the mile high extravagance of fresh strawberries and almonds which the diner next to me was in raptures over. And without a doubt, the best walnut soufflé in the world is made (and eaten) at Les Glycines, just 50 yards from the site at which the remains of Cro Magnon man were first discovered.
15,000 years ago our predecessors didn't know that you have to let the grapes begin to rot a bit on the vine to get the local sweet Monbazillac wine what is so perfect with foie gras and desserts. Those ancestors never had the chance to enjoy their region on bicycles while wearing off some of the calories they had consumed the night before. To be able to do that, and to be free to choose to maybe work up a bit of a sweat while pedalling, that's progress. That's my idea of a good time. That's my idea of being civilized.