The Vézère From St. Leon to Les Eyzies
The next day we paddled on downstream. The valley narrowed under limestone cliffs, called falaises, that have yielded evidence of human occupation from the 19th century back 40,000 years to the early days of the Neanderthals. Only a millennium or so before our own era, villages with stone churches and battlements began to be built into some of these cliff walls: in the eighth and ninth centuries residents took to the rocks to evade river-borne Viking raids, and in the 15th century, peasants took refuge there from the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Two of these sites, which can be seen from the river, are La Roque St. Christophe and La Madeleine which are open to visitors.
As we approach La Roque St. Christophe the river curves beneath a overhang which is dripping with water percolating through the limestone. On the underside hand small and bright green tendrils of ferns and bryophytes. We glide underneath into the magical gloom. Shortly afterwards we pull ourselves ashore at a rocky place which is not particularly amenable to disembarking. Our guide insists that this is our only choice if we are to examine La Roque.
Later when we re-start our paddle we will see the immense size of the cliff and observe the seven grooves cut into it by the river in aeons past. The cliff stretches 80m high and 1 km long.
After making sure our boats were safe from drifting off we scrambled up the bank and around a corner to find ourselves, rather surprisingly, at a small cafe. Opposite here is the hidden entrance to Roque St. Christophe and the modern museum and shop that protects it.
Here, man began occupying the site as early as prehistoric times, at the base of the immense limestone wall; in medieval times, a fort and troglodyte city took shape here.
The tour enables us to understand the configuration of troglodyte dwellings. Kitchens, places of worship, and ingenious civil engineering machines that really function: all this is beautifully reconstructed and explained throughout, making this troglodyte village an open book on 55,000 years of human survival. We spend an easy hour here examining the way people lived during the Middle ages.
A short while later we pulled ashore again at the picnic site at Tursac. Once again disembarkation was tricky as the river is shallow on the left side where we wanted to be and so we had to virtually pass our spot on the left, turn suddenly and paddle upstream quickly to reach our haven. Nevertheless it was worth it as our driver had got here ahead of us and laid out a splendid lunch on the oversize picnic tables. We had a pleasant hour sitting in the sun, nibbling some local cheeses and charcuterie with salads and wine.
Back in the boats we continued our easy paddle downstream. Too our left (that is river left, from the point of view of facing downstream) we could briefly glimpse the Maison forte de Reignac which is a troglodyte château built into the rock face. Further on we glided past more modern farmhouses built on the cliffs, moved slightly fast on small riffles where the stream was divided by an island and watch some cows cooling off on a muddy bank. They stared balefully after us.
At a sharp right-angle bend in the stream we came to La Madeleine. We can clearly see the 11th Century chapel clinging to the cliff-face and above the battlemented remains of a medieval castle. However it is most famous for the Abri de la Madeleine (The Magdalene shelter). The Magdalenian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic is named after it, as the type site. Prehistoric finds from the site include the ‘Bison licking an insect bite‘, a carving estimated to be 20,000 years old. The shelter was reoccupied during the Middle Ages and the medieval castle of Petit Marsac stands on the top of the cliff just above the shelter. The Chapel is reputed to have been visited by King Richard the Lionheart where he prayed before embarking on a Crusade to the Holy Land. It is unfortunate for us that the site cannot be accessed from the river and so we idly spin in our boats and look at it from a distance.
We continue on our way passing cliffs on either side before gliding underneath a railway bridge and then follow the river at it veers sharply left underneath more pockmarked troglodyte cliffs as we approach Les Eyzies. We disembark a few dozen metres after the road bridge.
We ended our Vézère paddle at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. It was late in the day, and fortunately we only had a short stroll along the river bank to our hotel, the Hostellerie du Passeur, opposite the National Pre-History Museum. We will have time in the morning to visit this and the cave at Font de Gaume, just outside of town. In the meantime we can relax after our long day on the river and look forward to a convivial evening.