In which we negotiate islands and discover a castle
These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Perigord region of France. I shall be mixing up stories from my first trip, eight years ago, to the trips we did last summer, about thirty trips in all. This entry is about the fourth day of the Perigord trip, where we canoe on the Dordogne river for the first time, negotiate some islands and discover a fairytale castle.
At breakfast the next day we all re-convene. Today is a day of two halves; first we will drive to Sarlat and visit the market, and then, in the afternoon we will begin the first of three days canoeing down the Dordogne..
Before we leave however their is just time for a flying visit to the National Pre-History Museum here in Les Eyzies. When I first visited this museum many years ago I thought it was a bit fusty and dry. Old-fashioned essentially. Just how many arrow-heads can one look at? These days I’ve heard that the experience is a bit more dynamic. It’s still all in French however.
A new museum has open in town called the Pole something or other. It’s a fantastic new white, aluminium and glass build. It doesn’t have much for the casual viewer. A few short films and an interactive map of the Vezere valley indicating all the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon sites. However the facility is designed more as a research centre. There is an extensive library and bookshop as well as a bank of computers for anyone to use for research purposes. These computers have access to thousands of documents about pre-history and a huge array of image and video materials too. Some of these include full length films and television programmes. You can access the internet too which is handy for to catch up on some emails!
Anyway so the bags are packed and loaded into the van and we are off to Sarlat. A mere twenty minute drive. We drive up the hill in Sarlat and try and find a place in the parking just beyond the cemetery. The place is heaving with cars and camper-vans parked everywhere. a little note about the cemetery though. As is usual in this part of France the graves are raised sarcophagi, presumably used to bury the remains of a sequence of family members. The strange here though is that some of them are covered in small greenhouses. Nobody has any idea about this. Are they locked? Further investigation is required.
After parking Paul and I accompany the guests down to the market. The idea is to lead the way so they can make their own way back to the van later. They can wander around the market themselves. We have agreed to re-convene at 1pm. On the way down we pass a row of Red Cherries. I mean an ornamental cherry tree with red leaves. One year we picked a bag of cherries from these and Paul got himself sick by eating them. Someone later told us ‘Never eat fruit from a red leafed tree’. This can’t be true. I have a red leafed hazel nut tree at home and the nuts are fine.
In town we reach the beginning of the market close to the Cenotaph. Usually I have to explain what a cenotaph is. Apparently it’s a monument to the dead where the bodies are un-recovered or buried elsewhere. Of course in Europe they have been built in most villages and towns to list the fallen in the the two World Wars. At least that is the case in Belgium, France and Great Britain. In Germany? I don’t know. May be the Cenotaph is not big enough to remember as the place to turn up the hill top get back to the car pack. May be the huge frying pans of the stall selling paella is a better sign. In any case we pack them off with brief instructions of how the land lies in the market and where to find the old town. I suggest they loop around the market twice if they are planning to buy anything to compare prices. I also suggest they might want to buy something to add to our picnic on the river tomorrow. I’m hoping that we don’t get a selection of twenty of so dried sausages and three kilos of cheese.
Paul and I have some of our own errands to run and we skip through to the usual sections of the market and get a few things for the picnic tomorrow. Sometimes I run around the old town and take pictures. It can be difficult with so many people around but it does always seem possible to find new nook and crannies in the back streets that you’ve never seen before. It’s always a pleasure to stroll through the cathedral too. Sometimes the light streaming through the stained glass windows cast beautiful colours on the stone walls and floors inside. Sometimes a choir is rehearsing.
The market itself can often be a bit overpowering. It can be cram packed and heaving with people. Mostly English by the number of voices I hear. Personally I think its over-hyped and over-priced and a bit of a tourist trap. I think it would be more pleasant to come here on a non-market day and appreciate the town on a more normal day. How normal it is though is difficult to say. Too many cafes and restaurants. Too many ‘Art’ galleries and shop selling knick-knacks and other shops selling ‘local’ produce. It’s a relief to be only spending a couple of hours here.
Eventually Paul and I gravitate to a local cafe run by a Dutch woman who makes a great hamburger and fries. It makes a change from the regional cuisine forced on us at all the restaurants in the area. We sit down in a quiet courtyard and watch the hustle and bustle of market life beyond the gateway. In this quiet refuge we can enjoy our lunch before we have to get back on duty.
Rushing back to the van to get there on time we are pleased to see that everyone else has made it. No need to hang around and no need to send a search party out! Jumping in the van we start our short, half-an-hour drive to the river.
We arrive at the river bank at Cazoules where we rendezvous with Eric our canoe-outfitter. He arrives with our canoes, paddles and life-jackets and we help unload them and get them ready for our paddle.
Having got ourselves ready we slip the boats into the wide river, and after a brief review of the safety procedures, we begin our long paddle down to Montfort. The river runs at quite a clip and we are soon on our way. I’ve reminded everyone that the Dordogne is a much larger river than the Vezere and is very wide in places, runs quite quickly in some places and has many islands to navigate along the way. I’ve explained that it is not always necessary for our whole flotilla to follow on another and if some want to go one side of an island, and some the other, this is fine. Usually the narrow side is the more interesting as this is where the wildlife hangs out; on the other had the wider side is usually swifter and more fun if you are looking for speed!
One particular concern on the Dordogne is what are called ‘strainers’; that is fallen trees, or over-arching bank-side trees where the water makes its way through the branches and roots, but where a canoe can get trapped. We must give these a wide berth. I remind them that should they find themselves in the water and approaching one of these then they should turn around and face them and attempt to climb out onto the branches. normally if you are in the water you should go feet first, on your back, so you can use your feet to push off rocks. I remind them too that you should allow the canoe to float in front of you so that you don’t become squashed between the canoe and a hard place. Luckily capsizing doesn’t happen very often.
One final point to remind them is that of course, if they are in front on the river, they have to make their own decisions about which way to go when a choice becomes apparent. remember cutting the inside of a bend is not always wise as you can run aground. besides the river runs faster on the outside of a bend. Just keep away from the overhanging trees on the bank. Also, if you are in front, look back from time to time and if you haven’t seen anyone for a while then slow down or wait. Wait where you are sure you are not opposite an island or wait at the downstream end of an island so that we don’t go sailing past you!
Almost immediately we come across an island where a choice has to be made. At this point I often tease everyone by pretending to be heading one way and then change my mind and quickly change course. depending on the current this may need some work and if others are trying to follow me they may not be able to change tack in time. It’s good to be out on your own sometimes. Depending on the water levels, this island also has smaller channels running through tall reeds, which I’ve attempted to paddle through on occasion. It hasn’t always worked and I’ve run aground before and had to drag my canoe out. So the others have the last laugh.
When the canoes emerge from beyond this island then we can be very far apart. To far apart to even shout at one another. A wave will have to do.
Before long we pass under an old railway bridge and approach another, very long and thin island. The branch on river left (that is, on the left when facing downstream), looks fast and narrow, with a few riffles, but this is the way I usually prefer, as you get a nice fast ride and you feel cosy and enclosed along the narrow stream. The outside is faster and wider though. If we go separate ways here then we may not see each other for twenty minutes.
Shortly after that the river takes a big left turn and we have no choice but to take the outside lane as the inner route has become overgrown with new willows and silted up. then the river straightens for a while before an entrance to a lagoon open up on the left. It can be interesting to glide into here as very often you can see swans take advantage of the calm waters. Usually some dead bones of trees are blocking the way so you have to steer carefully in the slow water. You have to come back out the same way too as their is no through passage.
After that, another island, and then a sharp turn right where sometimes, depending on the water levels it’s possible to slip into a narrow channel on the right. This then leads towards the bridge that marks St. Julien where you can see camp-sites on both banks. Depending on the season we are here we may see Water Crowfoot growing profusely in the river where it is slowing down. Sometimes it can blanket the river from bank to bank and it is difficult to paddle through. We stop here for a break on river left, so if you’ve taken the right side of the small island here you will have to cross back to the left smartly just before the bridge. Not always easy if the weed is profuse. The water Crowfoot , by the way, is a naturally occurring river weed here. It has a bright white flower, with a yellow centre and the flowers sometimes carpet the whole river. Very picturesque. It’s also very popular with damselflies and we will often observe the bright metallic blue bodies, with black-banded wings, of the Western Demoiselle (male). The females, also here, have green metallic bodies and golden wings. An example of sexual dimorphism.
If you slide you canoe into the weeds you can take a moment to watch the damselflies and observe their behaviour. The males may be defending females or territory and the females may be laying eggs (ovi-depositing). We may also see them flying in tandem. Other damsels will also be around; the pale red Orange Featherlegs, which has blue eyes, the pale blue, Blue Featherlegs (the female is brown), and the White-legged Damselfly (also blue). We may also see the larger dragonflies cruising around such as the Pronged Clubtail, which is yellow and black with blue eyes, or the Small Pincertail, which is also yellow and black but has grey eyes. Both Damselflies and Dragonflies are predators and catch other small insects whilst flying.
At St. Julien we take a break. Sometime we have lunch here, if we haven’t already had lunch at Sarlat. After this we paddle a long straight stretch of the river, where if we look back we can see a Chateau poking through the trees. After a little while the river narrows and start to flow a little fast again. As it turns left we can see a place where the right river bank is a wall of mud. This wall is dotted with small holes. This is where the Sand-Martins nest. However this has reminded me that up ahead is an obstacle to get past.
The underlying geology here has narrowed the river and it goes over some hard rocks which are angled in such a way as to cause a standing wave to form on the surface. As you approach you can see a wall of waves breaking in white horses. You can hear it too. The waves can sometimes be a three feet high and roll on for about thirty yards before they dissipate. If you take your canoe hard over to the left you can go around them. It’s more fun however to head straight for them and do a little bit of river surfing. The trick is to approach the waves at the highest point and keep your canoe at right angles to the wave, and paddle your way straight through them. You may get wet. Don’t change your mind or direction half-way through and keep paddling. It’s fun, and soon over. We’ve never had anyone tip over here though we did have someone once turn in the waves so the canoe was in the trough. They rocked a lot, but they didn’t fall out.
Once the excitement has died down we approach a close knit group of small islands where we can make various choices. I usually go for the narrower inside channels on the left where once again you have to negotiate the collection of fallen trees brought here during the winter. This is also where a great number of ducks and swans hang-out.
The river then swings right and then left where we cruise fairly tightly to the left bank looking for a narrow channel. Slipping into this channel we come across a small open beach on a promontory and we can pull up here for another break and a swim, if we are hot enough. The swimming is fun because the narrow channel has made the current faster and, because the faster water runs so narrowly you can easily swim into and out of it. the fast water halts abruptly where it runs into a slower stream coming in from the left. It’s a great place to take a break.
This is also the place where, infamously, two fellows in a canoe, on one of our trips, fell out. These guys were both called Jack, were both in their 70’s, and were both Irish-Americans from New York. They both always wore black clothes. On this day I came down the channel first in the fast water and then was careful as I turned to the right into the slower water. As I came down I noticed two girls sunbathing topless on the beach. I turned around in my canoe to watch the two Jacks as they came down. To my amusement they both swivelled their necks to look at the girls and the canoe ran quickly out of the fast water and into the slow. This had the effect of stopping the canoe very suddenly whilst the fast water behind swung the boat around and they both tipped out. I had to go back and drag the canoe ashore to empty it and get them both going again. They were slightly mad at each other for the mishap, but they both claimed, adamantly, that the half-naked girls had nothing to do with it.
When we get back into the canoes again after our break we take the right turn into the slower water with some care. if you then go over towards the left bank then you can examine the strange rock formations, and its associated plants, which are visible. The limestone has become heavily eroded both by the river and by water percolating through the rock from above. Limestone is porous, is mostly calcium carbonate and soluble to water and weak acids. For this reason it erodes easily. Most cave systems, for example, are through limestone bedrock. At this point on the river the limestone has been eroded such that sharp clefts have been cut into the rock. These have become overgrown with a variety of ferns and mosses, and sometimes some flowering plants too, such as bed-straws.
As we are passing these formations where little rivulets of water run down the cliffs and tree roots entwine themselves in and out of the rocks we come across a rope dangling from a tree above down to almost the surface of the river. Usually I just grab hold of the rope as I pass by and swing my canoe around. Once, just once, as a pair of my guests went underneath the rope, the gentleman at the back grabbed the rope and proceeded to climb it. His wife seemed quite unaware until he shouted when he had reached the top and she had paddled away. When she turned around in surprise he let go of the rope and fell into the water, and then subsequently swimming back to the canoe. he managed to get back in it too without tipping it over. I was quite impressed as it was quite a rope climb. It was a very hot day so I imagine the swim was refreshing.
Just after this the river passes under a suspension bridge which is notable in that the suspension cables are hidden in concrete boxes. As we pass under the bridge you can read a sign that says refreshments are available in the village. They are not. I fell for this sign once and disembarked to look for a cafe. Nothing is available; I’m guessing you’d have to walk further to the village proper a mile or so further up the road. I wonder how long that sign has been there?
Almost straight away we pass under an old railway bridge which has been converted into a rail trail for cyclists and pedestrians. There is then a long stretch of river which can be tiring if it is hot, or if the wind is against us. Usually it is the middle of the afternoon when we are here; probably the hottest part of the day with the sun beating down on us. With any luck we might just be able to grab a little bit of shade if we tuck ourselves into the left bank. Hanging your feet over the side from time to time can help too.
Eventually we reach a point where the river swings around to the right and on the inside of the bend is a beach, which can be very busy with families and children in July. We take the deeper water to the left and head towards to far bank where the water is running faster. Over here we can see that the limestone has been eroded in similar ways to what we have seen before. However some of the crevices cut into the rock are quite deep. In one of them, if the entrance is not snagged by a fallen tree, you can take your canoe right into a small cave. Depending on the water levels you can also get out of your canoe inside the cave. It’s a bit damp and smelly and covered with scratched graffiti, but it’s worth a look I think. The cave also has a window; a hole in the rock above the water-line.
Leaving the cave the river now enters a huge meander, called a ‘cingle’ in French. If we were to walk a kilometre here, dragging our canoe, we might save ourselves 8 kilometres of paddling. No-one has ever actually tried this. So we continue paddling down the river heading for another set of limestone cliffs ahead of us. I encourage people to slide over towards the right bank, because, if you look carefully, you will see the huge fairytale castle of Montfort appear between the trees. if you are on the left side you can’t see it because the bank-side trees are obscuring your view. We will now have to follow the full sweep of the meander before we eventually find ourselves below the castle. As we get to the cliffs at the apex of the bend it’s best to go right up to the cliff and get in the fast stream. The castle is looming dead ahead of us now, but we have to negotiate some islands first. taking the inside route seems like the easiest, but it means losing sight of the castle. I’d take the outside water which is running faster and from here you can just drift and take photographs as the castle looms larger and larger. Opposite the castle on the left bank is pebble beach, so we will pull up here for a break, and so we can look at the castle properly. A castle has been in this position for a thousand years. It has been built and destroyed at least three times and the present incarnation, in its slightly fey and whimsical style was built in the 19th C. It’s still impressive to look at though.
Back in our canoes we drift backwards down the river so that we can continue to see the castle as we leave it behind. We only have a short while to go now before our day on the river is done. We just have a string of three islands to get past. I usually like to take the inside track on the first two islands on the right side as they are narrower, shadier, and more fun. The river is running quite fast here so you have to keep away from the large trees overhanging the riverbank. After the second island the trick is to cross over to take the third island on the left side. This sometimes takes some work as you have to cross a channel of water trying to push you the other way.
if you are successful then you approach the last bit of fun today and a string of waves in front of you indicates that the water is speeding up even more. Ride these waves as before with a straight canoe at right angles to the waves, keep away from the cliff and watch out for any stray fallen trees in the water.By the time you’ve run these waves a grassy bank appears on the right side, often with people on the beach and children in the water. You might see a stack of bright yellow canoes parked above and you’ll see opposite this, on the other bank, a small restaurant. we’ve now reached our destination for the day and we take out on the right bank.
We need to unload everything from the canoes and take them up to the van which should be waiting above the beach on the lane. We’ll tuck our canoes away on the edge of the beach where we will find them, hopefully, tomorrow morning. We flip them over as well so they don’t fill with rain in the night! usually they don’t. Often the only extras we get are slugs and spiders!
Once the van is loaded we can decide who is going to walk and who is going to ride. It’s a short ten minute walk to our hotel. A little bit up hill. For those that walk I take them through the camp site, past the cornfields, and then up through the Walnut Orchards and finally up a narrow pathway which brings you out next to the garden of the hotel and restaurant where much of the produce are grown.
When we stumble onto the terrace of the hotel, Thierry will hear us and find us and I can introduce our new host. We will then sit on the terrace under the shade of the Wisteria having a drink or two, before we find our rooms. This small hotel is a converted farm overlooking the valley. The flowers in the garden are always beautifully colourful. The hotel is in acres of walnut trees between the villages of Vitrac and Montfort. If you just walk out the front gate and down the little lane for five minutes you will come over a small ridge, and below you, is the Château de Montfort, the very same castle that we just canoed by. Sometimes, if you walk this way in the early morning, all you can see are the towers of the castle rising above the mist.
We have dinner this evening at the same terrace.