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September 30, 2019 / annakpf11

The Valley of a 1000 Castles

…when the cities have killed off the poets, this peaceful region of France will be the refuge and the cradle of the poets to come.  —Henry Miller, writer (1891—1980)

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If Paris energizes the mind like a jolt from a double expresso, the French countryside revives body and spirit like a long cool drink on a hot day.

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We are heading south, to the Dordogne and Lot river regions, where we will spend five days exploring some of the most beautiful landscape and prettiest villages in France. But first, a side-trip to the hilltop village of Sancerre, at the eastern end of the Loire Valley, ground zero for one of our favorite white wines.

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The grape harvest is in full throttle, and we dodge crates of fruit to enter the la cave—the wine cellar—of a local winemaker.

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Anna translates a short lecture on terroir–some of the wines are from parcels of land with chalkier soil, others more flinty—and after sampling several (very small tastes; we have a long way yet to drive today), we purchase one of each and continue on our way.

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We travel at a relaxed pace, avoiding autoroutes whenever possible in favor of smaller country roads, allotting two days to reach our Airbnb in the Dordogne and including a detour to the tiny village of Gargilesse, a place Anna visited almost 30 years ago.

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Once the country retreat of writer Georges Sand, the town seems to have changed little over the years, still a hodge-podge of stone houses hidden in a remote valley, inhabited by artists and urban refugees and visited by relatively few tourists.

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We have come too late in the season for the annual harp festival, book and craft fairs, and the narrow cobbled streets are sleepy and peaceful, but we find an open café, and enjoy a delicious lunch of fresh gazpacho, mixed green salad and local smoked ham.

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Continuing south past Limoges, we enter the Dordogne river valley, whose limestone caves and gentle wooded hills have been inhabited by humans for at least 400,000 years.

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We pause to get our bearings in Sarlat-la-Canéda, an impressively intact medieval city located not far from our Airbnb.

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Definitely on the tourist trail—and rightly so—Sarlat was developed in the 800’s around a large Benedictine abbey and remained a prosperous town until the 1700’s, when it  was almost forgotten for nearly 150 years, thus preserving it from modernization.

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In the 1960’s, the crumbling historic buildings were restored by André Malraux, writer, resistance fighter and France’s Minister of Culture at the time.

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Street after street winds away from the central square, each corner revealing a new page of an ancient book.

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Narrow passageways and stairways beckon us on and on, until thirst impels us to stop for a “reward” (as Dave calls it): Perrier for Anna, espresso for Dave.

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Then it’s time to return to our car and set out to find our Airbnb. Dave has plugged directions into his iPhone, and in due course we proceed up a chestnut-lined drive to a small collection of stone houses, several of which are obviously rental cottages. We follow the signs to acceuil and knock on the door. From inside, we hear the loud whirring of an electric sander. Nobody answers the door, and so we try phoning. Just as I begin explaining to the man on the other end of the line (who does not speak English) that we think we are at his house but perhaps we are mistaken, the noise stops and a tall man appears in the doorway, covered from head to toe in white dust. It turns out that our GPS directions have sent us to the wrong Airbnb, but the dust-covered man knows our host, and the place we seek is only two minutes further down the road. We depart with many apologies and revised directions.

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Just down the road, as promised, an enchanting stone cottage awaits. Rustic on the outside, modern on the inside, it proves an excellent base for exploring the area.

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With its temperate climate, forested landscape, and abundance of ancient stone dwellings, churches and castles, it’s easy to see why the region is beloved by French and foreign tourists alike.

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Fortified castles dot strategic hilltops, evidence of the region’s feudal and embattled past.

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Control of what is now southwestern France see-sawed between England and France for over 100 years during the latter part of the Middle Ages, with the ruling houses of each country fighting incessant battles over territory.

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Towns regularly changed hands, forcing local inhabitants to swap allegiances according to the most recent victor.

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Finally, in 1451, motivated by Joan of Arc, French forces ousted the English for good. (Until the 1960’s, when tourism brought them back.)

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All roads seem to lead to an Office of Tourism, but in late September we have many picturesque villages largely to ourselves.

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The pilgrimage town of Rocamadour, clinging to a steep cliff face, is one of the more well-known tourist sites, but Dave and I are much more taken with the villages of Domme, Saint-Cirq-la-Popie, and the tiny hamlet of Saint-Martin-de-Vers.

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Dave starts each day with fresh bread and pastries from a local boulangerie, and with our Airbnb’s fast internet connection, is easily able to read the New York Times online.

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The Dordogne is renouned for its gastronomie, and we enjoy some fine meals out during our week here, but our favorite meals are cooked in our well-equipped Airbnb kitchen with ingredients purchased at the local farmer’s market.

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The weather starts out much warmer than usual for this time of year, with only hints of fall color in the woods, but then the leaves seem to change before our eyes, and one day we even enjoy a long walk in the rain.

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When the time comes to depart, is is with reluctance that we pack up and bid our host farewell. Perhaps we’ll be back one day, but now we are headed to the Pyrénées.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Karine / Sep 30 2019 10:28 am

    Nice photos!

  2. Maggie McLaughlin / Oct 1 2019 2:02 am

    I love this blog Anna and Dave. Your photos and descriptions are the best!
    I haven’t been to the Dordogne, but now I feel we MUST go.
    I see I’ve more of your blogs to read – thanks so much for writing these.

  3. Maggie Mclaughlin / Oct 31 2019 7:20 pm

    You do know you have the best blog out there – by far!
    I loved reading this!
    We’re ordering a Unity Twin Bed next week. I excited by the prospect of meeting up with you two again.
    Maggie and Tom
    Xoxo

  4. Maggie Mclaughlin / Oct 31 2019 7:22 pm

    You do know you have the best blog out there – by far!
    I loved reading this!
    We’re ordering a Unity Twin Bed next week. I’m excited by the prospect of meeting up with you two again.
    Maggie and Tom
    Xoxo

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