6 Day Perigord: Day 5: Castles on the Dordogne

In which we paddle through the 100 Years War

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 fifth day of the Perigord trip, where we canoe on the Dordogne river and pass some fabulous castles and villages.

Breakfast is the same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Who can complain though of fresh orange juice and croissants and bread and butter and jam. And coffee. I wont mention the tea.

Todays canoeing is relatively short and broken up by the visits we make to the towns and villages and castles we pass. It’s good to make an early start though as we have plenty to do.

Back at the riverside we flip over the canoes and slide them down to the waters edge. We have a quick look inside to eject any hitch-hikers. The usual culprits are spiders and slugs. Once it was an Adder, which is a venomous snake, and nobody noticed until we were just about to embark. I just scooped it out with a paddle and it swam off. They are generally only about a foot long and a bite would not be deadly.

Anyway normally a slug is the worst that we encounter. Once everyone is ready and we have what we need in the boats we wave goodbye to Paul, we will see him again at our first rendezvous at Roque-Gageac in  a couple of hours, and start paddling.

If we are early enough and it’s the right season, the river will have a soft covering of mist which sometimes floats on the water like ephemeral beach balls. As we pull out from the bank the current soon picks up and the canoes will rock as they hit the first waves. If I’m lucky no-one will have noticed that I’ve headed for the far bank, on river left, and slipped behind an island. This can be risky sometimes as the channel can be shallow in summer conditions and I’ve had to walk from time to time to get through. Usually it’s fine.

When I come out the other end the other canoes can be some way ahead of me as they have scooted down the faster current on river right. I get myself onto that side too and ride the current underneath the bank as we pass the little used golf course and head towards the cliffs ahead at the Vitrac bridge. We may even see Paul go across in the van.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Dordogne river

Mist on the Dordogne river, near Vitrac

At one time as you approached the cliffs you could see a small sign attached to the river-bank under the cliffs. If you approached it, is said, “Danger, Canoe on the Other Side”! This made me laugh. I presumed it related to the possibility of rock falls, but their is a road between the cliff and the river. Sometime you see people climbing on the cliffs too.

After the bridge the river turns left and another island appears on the river right. If the water-levels are enough then this too can be an interesting area to explore. It is very shallow at the beginning though and it can be hard to get in the correct stream which otherwise means you are pushed down the centre of the river in the main flow.

A long straight stretch appears before you now and you can look far into the distance and see the village of Domme perched on top of a wooded cliff. This is a Bastide town, which means it was fortified and protected in the Middle -Ages. The Knights Templar were imprisoned there and the English captured and lost it several times during the 100 Years War. It also faced turmoil during the Wars of Religion later. As we paddle down we get a good view of the cliff-top strong-hold but when the river turns underneath the cliff it disappears from view, never to be seen again. It’s a sad fact that I’ve passed this way many times and have yet to go up to the village itself. It’s quite a walk from the river. One day.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Dordogne river

Autumn and mist on the Dordogne river, near Cenac, Dordogne, France

The river broadens a little now and still runs quickly in some places. Another bridge comes into view. This is Cenac. This is where Georges our late canoe outfitter had one of his bases. One of his sons, Christophe, now runs it. The base is just before the bridge on the river left. I used to pull over here and run into the canoe place to see if any one was around. I might see Anton who was one of Georges helpers or I might see Georges himself, white-haired, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Even though it was barely 10 o’clock in the morning he would entice me to have a little something; a glass of port or a pastis. I would, and did, but I couldn’t stay long as my guests would be disappearing downstream.

Back on the river I’d skip around the little island on the far side of the bridge and then catch a little area of waves where the water started to run quick and soon I’d be catching up as the river again began a long straight run. On this run it is fun to keep changing where you are in the river as the current, which can be quite swift, changes sides quite often. It can also be surprisingly shallow in some places and even more surprisingly even in the deeper and faster water you can suddenly come up against rocks. I once hit one with such a force that it brought the canoe to a complete standstill and nearly catapulted me out the front of the boat. Luckily I was paddling alone and I merely ended up sprawling in the bow.

With a small tented cafe appearing on the right the river approaches some very white cliffs as it turns sharply right. They look chalky but on closer inspection is appears to be a type of Oolitic Limestone. By this I mean a fine type of limestone composed of very fine grains (ooids, or egg shaped) which doesn’t have the horizontal layers and vertical cracks associated with the limestones we have already seen. The white can be glaring on a hot summers day, but it is worth paddling underneath the cliff to admire its colour and structure.

In the height of summer there is sometimes a photographer on a small boat tied midstream under a shade. You can see a table onshore with another man with a computer and a printer which is set up for you to buy the prints he takes.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Roque-Gageac

Roque-Gageac on the Dordogne

By changing sides from the white cliffs on the left to the woods on the right we can get our first glimpse of Rogue-Gageac as we approach. First we see the houses of Gageac and then the brown cliff-face of the Roque comes into view. High on the cliffs you can see the ancient troglodyte caves where once man lived, and below it the rows of house hugging the tiny space beneath the cliff before the river.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Roque-Gageac

A Gabarre at Roque-Gageac

As we approach I remind everyone of the place where we will disembark and how we will pass the dock where the Gabares are. These are boats which resemble little galleons and which are replicas of the style of boat once used to convey wine and other produce down the Dordogne to Bordeaux. These days they are used to ferry tourists between Beynac and Roque-Gageac so that they can enjoy the river, its views and the castles from the water. They are the only powered boats allowed on the river. The sails are merely for show. They do travel quite slowly and generally don’t make much of a wake. All the same I instruct everyone to turn the canoe into the bow wave created by the Gabare so it is at right angles to the wave and this makes the canoe easy to handle. If you are parallel to the wave then it is possible to be tipped over.

Usually we pass several of these as we come into Roque-Gageac and then we approach the stone ramp as the river turns left and slide ourselves in. The river can be busy here with other canoeists as this is a popular stretch of river and it is now getting to the time of day when everyone is ready to do something. In the height of summer it can be a mass of children!

It is with some difficulty then that we pull up at the ramp and drag our canoes out of the way in case other people want to come behind us and use it too. Making everything tidy we walk up the ramp to the village, and agree on how much time we need to look around. Up to an hour if we want. It is interesting to walk through the back lanes of the village. It only has one road, which is busy, but behind are many footpaths which are worth exploring. These days you are not allowed to walk up the wooden staircase to the ledges and caves. Several years ago a large rockfall damaged some of the buildings in the village and the road had to be closed for a while. If you look on the cliffs above you can see that some of them are now covered in wire mesh.

Sometimes when we are here their is a small market in the car-park. It sells home-made produce, like liqueurs and cakes, and some home-grown fruits and vegetables and often some clothes and art-work as well. Usually I just flop down in the cafe and have a coffee, or perhaps the first beer of the day.

When everyone is ready we go back to the boats. It can be really busy now with crowds of kids drifting by and all shapes and sizes and colours of canoes strung out across the river like confetti. We get ourselves underway and drift backwards as the river continues its left turn around a full hair-pin. Looking backwards gives us another view of this beautiful village although we still have to be aware of the Gabares coming through and the hordes of school-children barely in control. It’s only really busy in July though and earlier or later in the season we are practically the only ones on the water.

Approaching Castelnaud on the Dordogne

Approaching Castelnaud on the Dordogne

Passing a Chateau on the right bank we bring our canoes over to river left so that we can glimpse our first view of Castelnaud in the distance. This is a huge castle which sits imperiously above the Dordogne. It is a fortress, the very essence of a castle and the largest we have seen. Our paddle from Roque-Gageac will only take half an hour and for most of this time the castle at Castelnaud will loom larger and larger until we approach the arches of the bridge beneath it and pull over onto the grassy banks on river left.

The castle is famous for being ‘English’. That is, during the 100 Years War, it had its allegiance to the Plantagenet Kings of England and faced the French at the Chateau Beynac, just downstream, which we will come to later.

The castle of course changed hands several times during this war and its defences and weaponry were continually upgraded as war technology and war-craft advanced. By the time of the French Revolution however the castle was a ruin. It has now been restored to its medieval glory and is a museum dedicated to the weaponry of the period. We will have plenty of time to visit it.

First however we should have some lunch. How about another picnic by the river? Why not? Paul will have found us, if he wasn’t already waiting for us. We may, or may not have a picnic table, but if we don’t then we can just flip our canoes and make one. We have toilets nearby to clean up and a bakery, a shop and a cafe too. If we want to we could cool off with a swim in the river as well. In the high season we’ve seen large parties down here with live music and many people. Once we were here on the day they have an annual race for these huge canoes which can hold thirteen people. When we arrived on the beach that day their were huge crowds of people and a brass band was playing loudly. Suddenly however we could hear this strange chanting coming down the river and when we looked we could see a small flotilla of these extra large canoes coming downstream. Each crew was manned by a team of people wearing a uniform and each boat was singing a song to match the rhythm of the paddling. It was quite a sight and the noise grew to a crescendo as the first boat arrived to much cheering.

After our lunch and a quiet doze on the grass it’s time to walk up to the village and visit the castle. We arrange a rendezvous time back at the boats, we’ll need a good couple of hours to visit the castle, and decide who wants to walk up and who wants to be driven. It’s a steep, but interesting walk, for those that want to go. But it is also very hot, usually.

From the cemetery at Castelnaud, on the Dordogne, looking down the Ceou valley.

From the cemetery at Castelnaud, on the Dordogne, looking down the Ceou valley.

The trail up to the village follows an old Roman Road. The castle here can be documented back to the 13th Century but earlier castles were built here and probably forts too. It’s thought the Romans had something here. In any case the Roman road winds up through the village in its characteristic steep fashion. The first  chance for a breather comes when you reach the cemetery. The wrought-iron gates are imposing, but they swing open easily into a cemetery which has outstanding views down the Dordogne, where the canoes look like flies and the Gabares look like canoes. The cemetery also looks down a tributary valley of the Dordogne called the Ceou valley. This is a classic valley punctuated by the tall Lombardy Poplar trees; it is also a valley famous for the Phylloxera aphid which destroyed much of Frances vineyards in the 19th Century. In fact in the square of the village at the lower level is a statue dedicated to the memory of this time. This shouldn’t distract from the beauty of the views from this vantage point though. Across the river can be seen the Chateau Marqueyssac, which was originally built by the French to spy on the English at Castelnaud. You can see, even from here, its famous terraced gardens of topiary. In the far distance you can also see Roque-Gageac.

Also in this cemetery are some Burial Crypts. On of them is for the use of the Bastard family; a name still used in France and a name in England that was brought over with the Norman French. You can go inside and read the inscriptions relating to many members of the family including a Baron.

On leaving the cemetery the trail continues past the church, which is sometimes open, and then up again along a part of the Roman Road that has been restored. That is, essentially, covered up. It looks smart, but doesn’t feel quite right. After some more stiff turns the narrow road comes into the high village, which is barely a single street below the castle. A couple of cafes and tourist shops are here, but nothing too tacky, and this is where the entrance to the castle is.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Castelnaud

Beynac Castle seen from the ramparts of Castelnaud

I think the castle is worth a visit, if only for its outstanding views up and down the river. You can clearly see the Chateau Beynac downstream which is where your mortal enemies the French would have been camped. But this castle is large and strong and seems impregnable to the weapons of the day. Inside the castle is a one way system for getting yourself around. It’s important to follow this as the stairs, particularly in the towers, are narrow and it would be difficult to pass other people coming the other way. You can inspect many types of weapon in the rooms of the castle, and you can watch several small films that explain the history of the castle; they are helpfully sub-titled in English. The most impressive weapons are the catapults or trebuchets which are on the ramparts and walls of the castle. Sometimes one of these will be in use to show how they work as they sling a lump of rock across a field!

The castle museum does give you some insight into what life would have been like during times of war, but I still think the place itself is immense and the views are always outstanding whatever the weather.

Back at the canoes it is probably getting quite late in the afternoon. We only have a short twenty minute canoe down to Beynac so we could still fit in something else if we want to. How about the Chateau de Marqueyssac and its gardens? How about the wine cave for some tastings? How about paddling back to our hotel for a beer?

Leaving the river bank at Castelnaud can be a bit tricky as the river on the left side, where we are can be very shallow. It’s best to paddle upstream a little bit and then swing over to the right side and go under the bridge that way. You still have to watch out for the Gabares though.

Once through the bridge it is more or less a straight run down to Beynac. You should remember to spin the boat around from time to time so that you can admire the Castle Castelnaud from this side. It is still imposing. In high summer though you may have to watch out for the river weed that blossoms some years. It can form a mat of white flowers almost from bank to bank, which can be difficult to cross if you end up on the shallow side.

Approaching Beynac from underneath the railway bridge.

Approaching Beynac from underneath the railway bridge.

As the river approaches the railway bridge the fast water is on the river right, but on the left bank is yet another Chateau. This is Fayrac, which was built by the English, to spy on the French in Beynac. Rumour has it that it is now owned by a Texas Oil Billionaire although I’ve never seen a Lone Star flag flying.

From underneath the bridge the Chateau Beynac comes into view; you can see the dark castle and the church stood imposingly above the cliff and the village. The river swings to the left as we canoe under this cliff and the castle looms above us. At the end of the village we will see the docks for the Gabares and our ramp where we will finish our canoeing for the day. After a tricky disembarkation we will carry the canoes a short distance and turn them over on the grassy bank. We will carry up our paddles and gear to the car-park where Paul is waiting for us.

Across the street is our hotel and we can cross the road, carefully, as it can be very busy, and quickly check-in. Everyone can disappear to their rooms and we will re-convene later for dinner, which is right here at the hotel.

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