Walking in the Dordogne is not as easy as we’d thought. There are many distractions and detour options – cafes, ancient monuments, more chateaux – it is hotter than we could have imagined, and the route is not always obvious. We expected heat but France is experiencing a particularly good summer – fine if we were sitting by a pool all day but a little challenging, with our English blood, for exercising, even after years of coping with the harshest sun in the world living in New Zealand.
The first day, from St-Amand-de-Coly – where we support a local business by buying a café-au-lait in the café opposite the picturesque church – to Montignac is mainly through woodland. Dappled light breaks through the low canopy that forms a roof, a cool tunnel, over us and I can imagine a carpet of bluebells in spring. In between we break out alongside fields of walnut trees. We are in full sun for only the final km, on the road past Lascaux into Montignac, where the heat hits us, reflecting off the pale pavement.
To say the Dordogne is pretty is like saying Chris Froome is a pretty good cyclist. In Montignac the houses, some here for centuries, are built of the local yellow-gold sandstone. Trees edge the Vezere, the river that runs past our hotel, the green complementing the stone perfectly. An old bridge, glowing warm in the evening sun, spans the slow-moving river that reflects it like a mirror.
We enjoy being able to sit outside in the evening, no need for anything more than a light layer of clothing, sipping good local wine and eating a delicious dinner of local ingredients. It’s incredibly peaceful, the low murmur of conversation from other diners, the occasional splash of a fish breaking the surface of the water, the chirrup of birds, the chatter of cicadas enjoying their day. Already I know how much I will miss it.
We start day two at Les Cabanes du Brueil. The Borres (on a local farm) are round cabins, a ‘clever stack of stone, without binder’ built centuries ago, whose roofs can weigh around 40kg per square metre. The style reminds me of English dry stone walls. Most of today’s walking is on tarmac and our feet are very hot very quickly. At one point the path is vague and overgrown and we worry we have made a wrong turn, retracing our steps a couple of times. It seems a long day before we finally arrive in Sarlat.
The hotel is in the middle of the old town, with thick stone walls and a maze of corridors. The small bathroom seems to have been hewn out of the wall, a deep alcove within it suggesting it is a few feet thick. A tiny window opens to a stone balustrade and a creeping plant that grows so quickly it trys to climb inside in the few hours the window is open.
Days three and four, along the wide Dordogne valley, turn into days off as Neil is ill, not eating for a day and no energy to walk. It’s a shame but it means we can explore the villages instead. I wander alone for a while around Sarlat, buying some gorgeous, creamy local cheese for lunch, then become bored. I don’t do alone well, and I miss him by my side, seeing scenes I know he would want to photograph but that my skills don’t do justice to.
In Domme, one of the plus beaux villages de France (prettiest villages in France – there are a lot of them, it seems, although I acknowledge the competition is fierce), our hotel is again in the old part of town, this time sitting right on the ancient town ramparts which, in turn, sit high above the Dordogne valley. I sit on the terrace with a glass of Chablis (as Neil sips his water) looking at the blue of the Dordogne snaking across the wide valley bottom, a road bridge spanning it just below the town. Fields of crops and grazing cows are edged by trees that slowly become forest as the ground rises into marbled cliffs, the colour of coils of hay lined up below. The red and grey roofs of small chateaux and villages poke through the lush green. It is stunningly beautiful.
The next day we meander down through the medieval town along tiny lanes and alleyways, watching in awe as a truck squeezes through la porte in the town wall, its sides centimetres from scraping the walls. No one in these villages has a big car. Neil’s appetite restored, we end the day with a gorgeous meal at a small restaurant, sipping the local wine (we’re creatures of habit) with duck, the regional speciality.
Day five is a chance to walk off the excesses of the previous evening. Starting in Lacave, where the chateau of Belcastel looks ready to topple off the top of the cliff that looms over the village, we walk alongside a small river, l’Ouyesse. It flows sluggishly, choked with green, and looks unhealthy, but we later discover it has a thriving trout population and is one of the cleanest rivers in France. How deceptive appearances can be. Limestone cliffs rise alongside us, overhanging in places, sculpted by weather into amazing shapes. This is my kind of scenery, the grey-white stone streaked with orange where minerals have leached and water has flowed down, vegetation protruding from tiny cracks that have gathered enough soil for it to take root.
After lunch the day grows hot and the words of Noel Coward buzz through my head. I look around for mad dogs to join the English in the midday sun. Although the day doesn’t reach it’s hottest until around 2pm, then stays that way, the heat not really dissipating until the sun sets. Evenings are warm but nights and early mornings are cool, one reason this region is perfect for wine production. In contrast to New Zealand, doors and windows are closed and shuttered against the heat of the day, opened after dark to allow the cooler air inside.
The walk ends in Rocamadour with a final climb up 216 steps and a steep path that zigzags up the side of the deep valley. Someone has had the good grace to open a café bar right at the bottom of the steps so we stop for a caffeine fix, scaring locals and tourists alike – I overheat quickly enough with exercise at any temperature, in this heat I have a face like a ripe tomato. Neil laughs.
We retrace our steps the next morning to experience the climb without the hordes of tourists we had to weave through the first time. How these buildings cling to the rock face is a feat of early engineering. They seem to merge into the rock seamlessly, planed stone becoming rough cliff as though they were carved from it. The steps lead though archways and past basilicas and chapels, leading to the chemin de la croix – the zigzag path – with a shrine on each zig or zag. Each holds a small altar and a panel, together telling the story of Jesus’ condemnation and subsequent crucifixion. We are reminded that this is still a sacred site to some when, on rounding a corner, we almost fall over a nun kneeling on one of the steps in silent prayer. A group of girl scouts instantly cease their chatter and, alongside us, file past in respectful silence. As we round a corner I turn for a final glance just as the nun, still on her knees, climbs to the next step in the same way the pious have done for centuries.
Walking in the Dordogne can be challenging, but the rewards are many and spectacular and it could be worse – I could be doing it on my knees.