The Dordogne is a corner of South West France held together by a web of country roads, a few rivers, and string of superlatives. It has foie gras, its own wines, and three crops a year of very sweetest strawberries. It has cavernous valleys and green rolling countryside. It has half a million years of human history and the best walnut souffle in the world.
Those country roads may see as little as one vehicle per hour, but they are all paved and very well sign posted. This makes the Dordogne ideal countryside for bicycling. That's what I did.
Whatever saddle sores I anticipated never did materialize. Before I knew it, I was involved in appreciating the serene, sensuous freedom of having my the liberty of the region.
In the courtyard of a Le Vieux Logis, a fine rambling manor which is now a fine country inn, our guides introduced us to our bikes. Within a minutes, like a troupe of laughing, giggling kids on their first two wheelers, we were loose on the roads of France. Throughout the week the laughing and giggling subsided briefly now and then, but no one was ever able to wipe the pleased grin off their face.
That first ride up to the viewpoint was a warm up, but it really wasn't long enough to justify what I did next, but you don't see a bathtub like that everyday. Long and deep, with an elegant sloping back. To me that's plumbing with a "come hither" look.
After my soak in the tub we joined the proprietor M. Bernard Giraudel for a glass of local wine (a Bergerac, Chateau de Chayne '88) in his garden. Le Vieux Logis has been in M. Giraudel's family for more than 400 years. Although he is now nominally in charge, he is the first to acknowledge the watchful supervision of his 92 year old mother.
That first dinner of finely sliced melon, maigret de canard, baked salmon, a vast cheese selection and a splash of very decent cognac lasted longer than an epic movie. Eating, pardon me, dining was to be the major entertainment every night of the week.
That first night in my room, I opened the leaded windows, looked over the mossy, tiled roofs of Le Vieux Logis towards a 12th century chapel. All was silent in the moonlight. "What could be better?" I thought, "I'm sure the rest of the Dordogne will be all downhill."
Literally and metaphorically, "downhill" was the wrong word. The next morning all roads seemed to lead uphill. Not impossibly steep, not without welcome flat stretches through ancient farms, not too much to bear in exchange for the excitement of having a day on a bike in the sunshine, but definitely not downhill.
Cadouin is a town in those hills. The shroud at the abbey of Cadouin attracted pilgrims for centuries until carbon dating found it to be a fake. The abbey, however, is real. The cloisters are carved from light caramel coloured stone. Fine details of devout but pained looking pilgrims crowd serene looking saints.
It wasn't until they had been watching me for 20 minutes that I noticed the stone angels and cherubim hovering against the ceiling. Over the centuries they've lost most of their noses, but none of their personality.
The stop at Cadouin was renewing and refreshing. Just as well, because there was more uphill pedalling to come. Then, at the top of the hill a vision: the company van, the one used to transport our luggage, its doors open, Bananarama dance music silencing the birds of the forest. Rachel, one of our guides, was opening bottles of Perrier and Orangina for us. "Congratulations" she says, "it's downhill to lunch from here."
Lunch was just outside the village of Molieres at the farm of M. and Mme. Carrier. Everything we ate was produced on their property. The highlight on the meal was garlic and egg soup, served with a slab of bread floating in the soup. First you eat the soppy bread, they you "dilute" the soup with home made red wine and drink that down.
M. Carrier told us, in mock confidence, that this dish is famous locally for its aphrodisiac properties.
It was that afternoon that I first fully appreciated the work that had gone into planning our route. AFter an uphill morning, wine in the soup, wine in the glass, nobody feels like a strenuous afternoon. With the exception of a very few pedal strokes, we were able to coast gently downhill all afternoon.
The woods, a few chateaux, some wild donkeys, a few houses chiselled into the overhanging bedrock glided by effortlessly. The wind in my hair, all the scents of the countryside in my nostrils, the sun shining through the overhanging trees dappling me and the road. All was well with the world.
I found a second wind after tea time. This was to be my personal pattern every day. I even went looking for extra kilometres. They weren't hard to find.
The Dordogne is basically a lovely garden. For sight seeing, there are no wrong turns. Where there's a garden, there's a garden market. Arriving in the small town of Le Bugue just before noon on market day was a once in a lifetime treat. It put the most exclusive gourmet shop I've ever wandered into to shame.
In France, first rate local markets, overflowing with local specialities are almost to be expected. But the Dordogne is internationally famous for something else: prehistoric man.
The area around Les Eyzies de Tayac is more densely covered with prehistoric sites than any other region in the world. There is evidence that mankind, or at least humanoids, have lived in this area for 500,000 years. Between 15,000 and 9,000 BC the Dordogne had the most highly developed culture on earth.
Their most spectacular legacy is the painted caves. The likenesses of the of bison and other animals are so sophisticated as to be disturbing. Picasso is quoted as saying that he would not have been able to teach the ancient artists anything new.
Reindeer were 80 95% of Cro Magnon man's diet, but they are the subjects of only 1% of the paintings. Nevertheless, in Font de Gaume, the usual favourite painting is a representation of one reindeer tenderly licking the head of another reindeer. It's a 15,000 year old animal love story.
The skills of the pre historic artists were evident (no mistakes allowed when working with vegetable dyes on stone) but the purposes of their work seem to be permanently lost in time.
Lunch on "pre history day" was remarkable for two things: the food at our hotel, Les Glycines, just 50 metres from the site of the first discovery of Cro Magnon man, and the company and conversation of our local guide, Christine Desdemaines Hugon. Christine has a Canadian mother, a Dutch father, a French husband, an English accent and a knowledge and enthusiasm for pre historic man which makes him seem alive.
Over a bottle of wine we got into a discussion of "what is art?" using pre historic art and artifacts as a reference. Non representational art, Christine said, is a phenomenon of the 20th century.
We were just getting onto the mystery of why the few representations of humans in cave paintings occur only in very inaccessible places (such as in a pit which collects toxic gasses) when lunch began to arrive.
I had ordered crudites to begin, expecting some bite size raw vegetables with dip such as I'd get on Bloor Street. Wrong. At first I didn't recognize what I had been served! Slowly I began to discern sliced beets overlaid with a spider web of mayonnaise, tomatoes coaxed into rosettes, dobs and dollops of mysterious purees laid out with artistry and precision which would out do a Swiss watchmaker.
It occurred to me that what the kitchen had produced was a piece of non representational art.
The chef of Les Glycines came through again for the evening meal. A light soup of julienned vegetables; "assiette en folie": salad with a garnish of foie gras, tomato and salmon; noix de veau with baby vegetables; then cheeses. Saved for last was the famous walnut souffle served with a "side order" of strawberries in kirsch.
Cro Magnon man never had to know how to select a bottle of wine. For me that's always been problematic. If you're very knowledgeable you can never find the exact vintage you want. And if you're familiar with only the offerings of the LCBO, French wine lists can read like a map of the moon. Although the sommelier is always there to assist, my preferred method is to plunge into the unknown and confidently order a wine I've never heard of.
This approach goes well with my theory that, of the wines produced in small quantities (and therefore never seen on this side of the Atlantic), the value is proportional to the silliness of the name.
My dinner companions, Sheila from Toronto and Mike and Sue from Dallas were only slightly under the influence of our pre dinner Kir Royales when they approved my theory. We selected a bottle of 1980 Domaine de Caresse which all present agreed was quite a find for the modest f90.
Monbazillac is the Dordogne's equivalent of Sauterne. Its medium sweetness is achieved by the method known as "noble rot": allowing the grapes to begin to rot on the vine before harvesting. Sounds bad, tastes great, especially with local cheeses and foie gras.
The timing of the frosty and sunny days of the autumn determine Monbazillac's sweetness, fruitiness and body. Vintages vary as much as the fall weather, so, especially in this region, it's considered important to choose the right vintage. We chose the vintage year of Mike's divorce and were congratulated by the sommelier on our discerning selection.
The wishful rumour that calories consumed on vacation to not go the hips is, sorry, untrue. But biking holidays may be the exception. According to Rachel, one of our guides, even our gourmet experience of the Dordogne is usually a "break even proposition" when biking.
The longest distance we pedalled in one day was 50 kilometres. After a few days of breaking in some leg muscles, this was a very possible accomplishment for everyone on my trip.
The real advantages of cycling are the access and independence.
There weren't many tour busses, but our hearts went out in pity to the captive looking passengers we saw at such attractions as the medieval religious city of Rocamadour and the fortress of Castelnaud. For those poor souls, stopping and walking around the touristic sites was their greatest freedom and biggest adventure. For we privileged tourists on bikes the stops were just the opposite. How did those bus people ever wear off the foie gras?
A week of cycling from chateau to country inn to chateau was not quite enough time to make me take it all for granted. But the hospitality of our hosts at Chateau de Roumgouse, and their creme caramel, made me want to stay forever. ed.
The beauty of Chateau de la Treyne, perched on the edge of the Dordogne River, would be a constant revelation even if one could live there every day.
Pretending that I did live there, I got involved in entertaining myself at the grand piano in the dining room. I was suddenly surprised to find the chatelaine watching me. Presuming she was anxious to get on with setting up the tables for dinner, I apologized and made to leave. "Pas de toute, monsieur. Vous etes chez vous."
With my bike parked outside, the sun setting over the river, the staff lighting the candles, I indulged in the ultimate luxury which Madame's remark had suggested: I allowed myself to feel completely at home in her chateau.
Recipe for the walnut souffle available