We stayed in a small, stone built gite, owned by an English couple who had given up the rat-race and were living their dream. Like I always do on holiday, I look around and think.... 'Yes - this would do me'. We arrived on a Saturday after driving through France with a couple of overnight stops at Amien and Tours - both pleasant enough. The weather was kind, we enjoyed constant warmth and sunshine for the journey, although it did get somewhat cooler in the evenings.
I'd taken both my bikes, the old one for pootling around and the newer for a long, hard-core session. On Sunday morning I set off to explore the lanes in the immediate vicinity - just a few easy miles I thought. That's when I found out why you don't see so many cyclists in these parts. Its hilly. And by hilly I mean long, steep roads that go on and on. To make matters worse our gite was in a village pretty much on top of a hill. Every road out was a fast, unrelenting white knuckle affair through dark, sun-dappled forests for what seemed like miles. Not knowing the terrain I made liberal use of the brakes, at the bottom of each descent my rims were red hot and as I paused to consult the map I realised I was in for a hard time.
There was very little in the way of 'flat' roads - it was a constantly undulating ride - with long, long uphill stretches - all of them steeper and harder than the stuff I'm used to at home, and each effort leaving me gasping for air and with legs like jelly. On top of that there were many small side roads, surfaced in what appeared to be limestone chippings, loose and dusty and reflecting the sunlight so that I was constantly blinded by the intense glare. That first morning I managed only 6 or 7 miles and felt totally shattered. I spoke to Glenn (the owner of the gite), himself a cyclist, a man with the gaunt, lean look of someone who rides these roads regularly. 'Ah yes its pretty hilly round here - but you get used to it' he said with a smile. Maybe he was right, but I only had a week, I'd need much longer.
We spent time exploring the area. If any of you are tempted by a trip to the Dordogne I'd thoroughly recommend it - its a big area but the part we stayed in was particularly enjoyable. We spent time in the town of Sarlat - I think probably the prettiest French town I have ever seen. Imagine how Walt Disney might portray a typical French town and you'll get the idea. Beautiful medieval buildings, cobbled streets and squares, a myriad of narrow alleyways smothered with bars, cafes and local shops. With the sun beating down, just lazing around here, with a cold beer was simply perfect.
I intended to cycle every day - but the prospect of getting up and facing those hills first thing in the morning left me uninspired and after the first couple of days I limited my efforts considerably. We visited the caves at Lascaux to look at the prehistoric paintings - one of the highlights of the whole trip. And travelled into the valley of the Dordogne river - taking in a boat trip and visiting Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, with an amazing swirl of box hedges set high above the river. At last I saw a few cyclists - the gentle valley roads and the sunny warmth tempting out the locals. In these parts there's a Chateau on pretty much every corner, we visited one built high up on a rocky outcrop, some of the interior rooms were built into the rock and there was a particularly nasty dungeon with a collection of various methods of torture. Some evenings I managed a short ride to the bottom of the hill and back up again - a torture that could easily have been added to the dungeon of that chateau.
Back at the gite we sat out on long evenings enjoying the warmth and playing backgammon - listening to cuckoos and watching lizards dart around our feet. When darkness finally fell it was with an intensity unfamiliar to us - there are no street lights here - no light pollution at all. And so quiet that simply breathing sounded loud. Before we knew it it was time to return. That horrible moment when suddenly its all over and the prospect of returning and impending work starts creeping back into your mind. But no matter, this was a great break and we will be going back to explore further - its on the list.
|The gardens of Marqueyssac|