Guest Blog: Day 5: Célé: Caves & Chutes

Day 2 on the Célé: Down to Cabrerets

Today dawned early for those of us who decided to follow Steve on a 1 ½ hour hike at 6:30 am.  We hiked 4 miles as the sun rose and found an ancient dolmen where chieftains would have been buried with their worldly goods thousands and thousands of years ago.  We checked out the beautiful fields around us, the wildflowers and orchids that Steve loves to find (found several monkey orchids here along with a sleeping butterfly)!  Nearing the inn, we also found a shrew in the middle of the road – had never seen one!  He was dead…..

a1 Today we are out at 6-30 AM for a 4 mi hike

An early morning walk on the Causses above the Célé river

After breakfast of wonderful breads, yogurt, fruit and coffee, we are off at 9am to visit the caves at Pech Merle, near the Lot River.  We had a guided tour through this ancient cave containing stalactites, stalagmites, 70 different representations of animals from spotted horses, bison, mammoths, aurochs, horses, etc.   Paintings were done in black or red using coal or a magnesium oxide and spots were made by blowing the paint from their mouths.  We found ancient footsteps preserved in the calcium carbonate along with pearls made from the cascading waters.  It was a moist environment in the cave and all of us found it difficult to breathe – we are assuming from low oxygen levels.  As fascinating as it was, it was nice to be out in the fresh air after an hour!

PechMerle_SpottedHorse-2

The famous spotted horse cave painting at Pech Merle

Next we drove through another old village near the river – these villages are alive with bright spring flowers against the backdrops of yellow limestone and sometimes crumbling structures of old abbeys, churches etc.  Most of the houses seem well preserved, although many are still shuttered for the season.  Getting to the river at Marcilhac, we are ready for our paddle down to Cabrerets after a stop for coffee and a Danish.  I was teamed with Annie for the morning paddle – Marlee, Annie and I have been switching off to paddle with Steve.

c27 Another delicous picnic prepared by George-Steve!

Another delicious picnic prepared by George/Steve at Sauliac-sur-Célé!

We paddled to a beautiful spot along the river – “George, our driver, shopper, picnic maker, always seems to find a great spot with a picnic table and such for a wonderful lunch spread.  Marlee and I have the afternoon paddle together.

d30 We have some very wet and cold paddlers!

After a small accident (and wild swimming) a tow is in order!

There have been a couple of water chutes that some have gone through – I skipped the first one – those in the bow of the boat got VERY wet!  Marlee and Steve did the second one – and I have it all recorded!  We had an unfortunate incident near the end of the paddle – Patty and Paul managed to dunk in the river – got tangled up in a big overhanging branch along the bank.  All was well and retrieved – but not sure how Paul’s camera fared….

d37 Having a great time - smile Steve!!

Steve, Annie and Marlee at St. Cirq Lapopie

On the way home, we stopped at beautiful old village called St Cirq Lapopie that Steve sometimes stays in and walked the cobble-stoned streets – wish we had been able to spend more time there!  Patty and Paul were waiting in the van staying warm.

e43 Beautiful flowers

Flowers and rooftops at St. Cirq Lapopie

We returned to the inn around 6pm– it has been a long day!  Dinner is at 7:30, again beginning with an aperitif before of walnut wine (homemade of course!).  A young couple has joined us – they are from Germany and are hiking for 5 days – approximately 12-15 miles a day with a donkey carrying their belongings.  They will stay in hostels along the way.  Another rousing dinner of a traditional English pork stew and baked apples & ice cream for dessert.  Bed felt wonderful at 10:30!

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

Details of this tour can be found here: Green River Canoes 12 Days 3 Rivers

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Guest Blog: Day 4: Célé: Stream & Weirs

A day on the Célé: Espagnac & Marcilhac

a6 So peaceful...

Starting off on the Célé river from St. Eulalie

We awake to sunny skies – so nice!  After a wonderful breakfast at the hotel, we are off on a 20 minute drive to our next river adventure – the Célé.  This river is actually a small winding stream that flows down a steep sided valley into the Lot. It is a place that few tourists visit and we do have the river to ourselves.  Our paddle today is from St. Eulalie to Marchilhac.  We put in and only go a short distance before stopping in the village of Espagnac to check out the beautiful flowers that are blooming and some ancient ruins of an old monastery.  The bearded iris and roses are just beautiful.

b13 Beautiful!

Flowers and steps at St. Eulalie Espagnac

Back on the river and we are in for some adventures.  The Célé is very narrow and is running fast.  My long ago learned canoe skills are being tested!  We do have to navigate three weirs along the river – rock areas that sometimes have to be portaged around.

b15 I am paddling with Annie

Annie leads the way on the Célé

The first one we ran right over without a problem – it was a little like running a very short rapid.  Next we had to come down a roller area to the side of the weir – we made it fine but Paul and Patty got somewhat hung up – must be all the great French food!  The last one was just a log and we went right over that.  Guess we are lucky that the river is running so high!

c20 Patty & Paul negotiating one of the weirs on this river

Patty & Paul negotiating one of the weirs on the Célé river

The scenery along the river was stunning – green colors everywhere with tree branches hanging over the river, herons flying ahead of us from one place to another, wag tail birds flitting about and cuckoos singing high in the trees.  We had planned to stop at a small café in town on the way to the farm where we are staying for a beer, but it was closed.

c29 Another view

La Métairie Basse: our lodgings for two nights

We finally wound our way up the hill to where we will stay for the next two nights.  It is a wonderful farmhouse in the middle of the countryside and we will be eating all our meals here, prepared by our hosts Helen and Richard.  This place (originally built in 1809) was converted 15 years ago from a complete ruin into a B & B – something you would see the likes of on an episode of International House Hunters on HGTV!  This couple came from England in search of a better life and are soon getting ready to retire.

d35 Our dinner - salmon in pastry puff - yum!!

Richard bakes a Salmon en Croûte for dinner

Richard cooked a delicious salmon in pastry main course, plus we had an aperitif, appetizer, green beans, various cheeses and a banana pudding for dessert.  Time for bed so we can go for the 6:30am hike!

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

Details of this tour can be found here: Green River Canoes 12 Days 3 Rivers

Guest Blog: Day 3: A Paddle to Les Eyzies

Vézère Day 2: Troglodytes and Chapels

Another foggy and drizzly day to start – but then we lucked out and the sun peeked out every now and then in the afternoon!  We have to leave our wonderful host Roland this morning. After some interrogation he reveals he was born and brought up in Hong Kong but is of German descent.  His mother is here from Germany for a while and we see her working in the gardens.

We breakfast, pack the van and we are off for the canoe put-in spot right here in this little village where we stayed. We will paddle from St. Leon to Les Ezyies – a long day of paddling, but not hard at all.

a7 Our last day on the Vezere

Our second and last day on the Vézère

We stopped mid-morning at the La Roque St. Christophe (a city built into the side of the cliff where Cro-Magnon man lived and others followed up until the 1500’s).    It was fascinating to walk along this cliff and see all the makings of a real village built into the walls – safes (assumedly to keep the trading beads in?), slaughter, drying and curing areas, places for weapons, the kitchen, a church, the scaffolding that they built and a huge wheel powered by a man walking through it which helped raise rocks etc. in the rock quarry!    This village was part of a large communications set-up among villages all along the Vézère River – it took 6 minutes for the bugle sound to reach this village from the next nearest!  It was interesting just how much high tech knowledge these early people had!

g67 Our picnic lunch - in the sun!

Our picnic lunch – in the sun!

We floated and paddled, had our picnic on the banks of the river (different types of meats and cheeses, French breads, wonderful hot Dijon mustard, salad (with fresh radishes George bought for me!), Céléry salad, fruit and of course, dark chocolate!!

We passed by many more cliff dwellings and some houses used in present day that are built into the cliff walls.  We all rafted together down the river at one point and it was quite pleasant!

g69 That is more like it!!

Annie & Steve start sprinting. That is more like it!

b11 Interesting rock with holes

Interesting rock with holes

b12b Made it out!

Steve and Cheryl taking it easy

g60 Another building in the rocks

La Madeleine: a prehistoric rock shelter with a troglodyte 11th century Chapel & Castle

Tonight we dine in this cute little village of Les Eyzies – our hotel is right in the heart of the village and very cute – I have had the windows opened wide and watched the people in the square below me.

After we had a walk around the village which is only one block long, nestled in between the cliffs where more houses are built and the Vézère River. This town is in the middle of duck country – there are stores everywhere that sell Foie gras – would love to bring some home but was stopped at customs the last time I tried that!   Dinner was another gastronomic event with lots of wine, great food and conversation and certainly lots of laughs – fell into bed at 10:30pm!

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

Details of this tour can be found here: Green River Canoes 12 Days 3 Rivers

Guest Blog: Day 2: Vézère: Chateaux and Locks

On the Vézère with Chateaux and Locks

Another cool and overcast day with rain forecast at midday – but it will be our first day on the river – yea!  Some went for a walk with Steve at 6:30 but I opted out this morning – spent some time in the lounge checking e-mail as that is the only place I can get wi-fi.  I was not up for getting up at 6am! Breakfast was at 8am – typical European breakfast with cold cuts, cheese, cereal, yogurt, croissants, coffee and juice.  We were ready to leave the inn at 9:15am.

a1 Our inn

Our inn: the Relais de la Côte de Jor, St. Leon-sur-Vézère

After stowing dry bags and such in the van, Steve, Marlee, Ann and I took a path down to the village where we meet the canoes – about a 40 min walk.  Beautiful stone walls, summer houses awaiting their occupants, wildflowers, rows of walnut trees just starting to leaf out, white horses who came running to greet us – all part of the experience.  We gather paddles, life jackets and then follow the trailer with the canoes to the put-in spot.
From here we walked up to the town of Montignac where we grab coffee, or an éclair while the “Steves” do some errands.  Finally around 11:30 we are finally on the Vézère River!

c20 Finally - what we came here to do!!

Getting ready at Montignac on the Vézère river

I am paddling with Steve in the stern – I am lucky!  He is a wealth of information as we paddle the quiet river, sometimes with a few ripples, past verdant river banks, 10th century chateaux sitting high above us with ivy hanging down from the cliffs, waterfalls flowing rapidly, waddle tail birds, sandpipers, gray herons and 3 ancient 18th century locks that kept the river traffic running when there were dams on this river until the railways were built.

Steve (aka George – nicknamed by me as he called me Patty in the beginning of the trip!) prepared a delicious picnic lunch for us along the banks of the river – it was fun despite a light rain falling.  Here we also explored the sleepy little village of Sergeac, so quaint and lovely with blooming gardens and cozy looking French homes made of limestone.

c24 Cheryl paddles with Steve

Cheryl paddles with Steve

d30 Steve & I approach a small waterfall

Steve & I approach a small waterfall

Another 30 minute paddle in the rain brought us back to our village of St. Leon where we took out and climbed in the van for another adventure.

 

e41 One last look

One last look at the Chateau du Losse on the Vezere river

We stopped at the Rouffignac Caves – only 10 million years old!  These caves are all natural as they were found and contain so many interesting features.  We take a little train through the corridors of the cave with a guide speaking in French and occasionally in English for the 5 of us.  The further and further that we got into the caves, the more interesting it became.  20,000 years ago, bears inhabited these caves and made huge crater-like depressions in the floor rocks as they hibernated.  They also made many scratchings on the rock walls as when they awoke, they needed to trim their nails!

Deeper into the cave it became apparent that man had also inhabited this area – but 14,000 years ago.  There were many etchings on the walls of hippos, bison, woolly mammoth, big horn sheep, horses etc. In some places there was even some graffiti on the ceilings – these were done by “modern” visitors who were not aware of the prehistoric drawings further on in the caves. Some of the animal etchings were superimposed to make it seem like the animals were running and some were even pregnant.  It was hard to imagine in some of the areas where men had to actually lie on their backs due to the low ceiling to make these etchings. It was quite mind boggling to see these ancient etchings of another civilization!

g65 Toasting with pastis!

Toasting with pastis!

Back to our inn, time for a shower and then we are off to dinner at 7:20.  We ate in town again – a 5 minute drive by van.  My duck confit was absolutely delicious and we had laugh after laugh after laugh – a great group and great guides!  Per Steve 2 or “George”, we are going through the group dynamics of “Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing” – he was a psychiatric nurse at one time and has done much psychiatric counseling – guess we all need that!!  Ha! Ha! But whatever it is, the group is certainly working and we are having a great time and a lot of laughs!

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

Details of this tour can be found here: Green River Canoes 12 Days 3 Rivers

Guest Blog: Day 1: Arrival in the Perigord

A visit to Oradour-sur-Glane & the Château de Losse

Three of us had met our hosts, Steve & Steve, at the hotel in Limoges the night before and had got to know one another a little over a splendid dinner. We were all set for a nine-day canoe tour of the Perigord and Lot regions of France featuring 2 days on the Vézère river, 2 days on the Célé and then 3 days on the Dordogne. First of all we had to wait for the arrival of two further guests at Limoges Station at about midday: they were taking the train down from Paris.

After breakfast at the hotel the three guests already here, Cheryl, Paul & Patty, packed into the minibus and we drove the short distance out of town to visit the infamous site of Oradour-sur-Glane. “On 10 June 1944, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in Haute-Vienne in then Nazi-occupied France was destroyed, when 642 of its inhabitants, including women and children, were massacred by a Nazi Waffen-SS company. A new village was built nearby after the war, but French president Charles de Gaulle ordered the original maintained as a permanent memorial and museum.

Naturally it is a sober and thought provoking place to visit.

b11 Twisted bed frames and ovens

Twisted bed frames and ovens at Oradour-sur-Glane

After a coffee on the Railway Station concourse we met Marlee and Annie off the Paris train and soon we were on our way south for the drive to Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. It took about 90 minutes.

c24...with Annie and Marlee on it!

Marlee and Annie arrive at Limoge station with Steve the porter!

On arrival we drove straight up the hill to our lodgings at the Relais de la Côte de Jor. Our host, Roland, wasn’t in, but he had left us the keys so that we could assign everyone their rooms and get the luggage unloaded. We would be here for the first two nights.

d30 View from my room to the pool

View from my room to the pool at the Relais de la Côte de Jor

We were then ready for a late lunch which we took on a patio table outside as the sun began to break through. It did not take long for a typical French repast to be set out. Nor to be demolished either!

d32 We are hungry!

Picnic lunch at the Relais de la Côte de Jor. We are hungry!

After that we still had time to do something and so decided to visit the Château de Losse. “The medieval fortress overlooks the Vézère river. In 1575 a Renaissance Hall was built within the stronghold. It is enclosed by curtain walls and surrounded by a deep ditch. Inside the fine décor and the exceptional period furnishings bear witness to the grand lifestyle of the Marquess of Jean II de Losse in the 16th century.

d39 Another view of the river

A view of the Vézère river from the Château de Losse

In the evening we walked down the hill (or some of us did – admiring some wild orchids along the way) to the centre of the village where we found the lovely Restaurant de la Poste. We had a splendid introductory meal for the whole team as we began to get to know one another.

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

Details of this tour can be found here: Green River Canoes 12 Days 3 Rivers

Canoeing the Rivers of the Past: Pt 2

The 11thC Magdalen Chapel perched above the Vezere river, Perigord, France

The 11thC La Madeliene Chapel perched above the Vezere river, Perigord, France

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.

At Roque St. Christophe on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

At Roque St. Christophe on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

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 Madeliene on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

At Madeliene on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

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.

In and around Les Eyzies, Perigord, France

In and around Les Eyzies, Perigord, France

Canoeing the Rivers of the Past

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Sergeac

Canoes tied up at the picnic spot in Sergeac on the Vezere river, Dordogne, France

The Vézère From Montignac to St. Leon

Opposite us as we picnicked on the river-bank under the willows, the Vézère River curved glossy and dark under a cliff, carrying three canoes and a kayak. The paddlers passed smoothly over the water, under the bridge and out of sight. Reports had been right — the canoeing would be good here in the Dordogne, an area in Aquitaine where the rivers have invited exploration and settlement since the days of the Neanderthals.

We were lunching in St. Leon-sur-Vézère, a small village clustered around a 10th Century Romance Church and a 16th Century Château — and the base we had chosen for the first few days of our trip. The village overlooks the Vézère in a landscape that harbours hundreds of caves and overhanging rock shelters. Within them are the prehistoric creations for which the Dordogne is known: paintings and engravings of bison, reindeer and other animals made by people who lived 10,000 to 45,000 years ago.

Later that evening, we looked down from our Relais high above the valley to the maize fields and grazing cattle on the rich flood plain across the river. Beyond, rose hills covered with green oak, sweet chestnut and pine; prime habitat for wild boar, fallow deer, mushrooms and truffles.

After the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, this valley was a cold, dry steppe where reindeer, bison and horses grazed. Among the predators hunting them were humans. Like others before us, we had come to the Dordogne hoping to grasp the moment when human self-awareness expressed itself in a tangible way: the cave paintings for which this valley is justly famous. We would use the river to explore the valley; all the better to discover the region’s character now and in the past.

After our first night at the Relais de la Côte de Jor, a shuttle took us to an embarkation point several miles upstream on the Vézère to Montignac, and we prepared to set out. Our little flotilla was accompanied by a guide who not only refreshed our memories about paddling technique but also provided useful information on the natural history of the valley and the history of the chateaux and villages we would pass. Not only that he was also laden with all the victuals for our picnic lunch.

Before starting however it was suggested we should take the time to have a short stroll around the village of Montignac, past narrow medieval lanes and foie gras shops, and which lies beneath the nearby hill of Lascaux, which has been called the Sistine Chapel of the Upper Palaeolithic because of its famous cave paintings, 15,000 to 17,000 years old. It is more than a mile above the river, and visitors are restricted to a reproduction of the cave’s most striking chambers. It is however a meticulous reconstruction, carved using laser measurements of the original cave, and hand-painted over a period of six years.

With the addition of fresh baguettes and water we began our paddle. We will visit the cave at Lascaux towards the end of our tour when perhaps we will better understand the context of its significance. This valley has more than 200 places were prehistoric artefacts have been found and we will explore some of the smaller ones before visiting the splendour of Lascaux.

The river carried us under overhanging grottoes gouged out of limestone by the current; the 16th-century Château de Losse sits on top of one of them. Gardens of ferns and mosses dangled from their ceilings, and martins darted in and out. On the river, Common Buzzards (a hawk rather than a vulture) swooped overhead, and anglers fished for trout and pike.

The overhanging grottoes were our first sign of the caves and natural rock shelters that fostered and preserved this region’s outpouring of prehistoric art, which has long fascinated archaeologists. A recent theory, promoted by Jean Clottes, a pioneer of French prehistoric studies, and David Lewis-Williams, a South African expert in the region’s rock art, is that its creation was the province of shamans who often painted in ecstatic trance states and for whom the caves and shelters were portals to the underworld. Others believe that the theory explains only one of many reasons that, over a period of more than 30,000 years, people decorated the caves.

These days the Château de Losse is open to the public although sadly they have made no effort to provide easy access from the river. An arched gateway does come down to the river but the bank is high there and it would be difficult to disembark or leave your canoe anywhere safe. A previous visit, from the road, has proved worthwhile though, and you can explore the Renaissance House and the formal gardens and battlements. From the river the Château looks ornamental and designed for accommodation but from the other side you become immediately aware that it was built for protection. It has a moat, now dry, fortified towers with gun emplacements and a large gatehouse which would have provided a formidable barrier to incursion.

The Chateau de Losse on the River Vezere, Perigord, France

The Chateau de Losse on the River Vezere, Perigord, France

At the Château de Losse we had also paddled past, and through the remains of a lock gate. It seems that in the not too distant past the river had been an important transport link when the roads had been rough and ready and perhaps impassable in the winter. Here we could see clearly where a lock gate had stood and where the wooden sluice and paddle gates had slotted into it. The dam itself of course has long since been dismantled. The stones of what remains can be seen to have been worked in some style as they are beautifully curved to fend the force of the water. The great canal building age in Europe was in the 17th Century so we can only suppose that these are of a similar age. We pass three of these structures on this stretch of the Vézère.

We dream of what goods they were bringing up and down the river, and if they had to pay tolls to pass. We wonder too about the style of the boats being used and guess they must have been of very shallow draught: and were they poled up and downstream or perhaps hauled by men or horse. We can see no evidence now of a tow-path and the banks are often wooded, where they are not cliffs.

In a short while we had canoed down to the village of Thonac and passed under a small bridge before we could glimpse the open belfry of the village church away to our right. This is a common design feature of many churches in the region. We didn’t stop however as we had lunch to attend to and a cave to visit later in the afternoon.

The Chateau de Belcayre on the River Vezere, Perigord, France

The Chateau de Belcayre on the River Vezere, Perigord, France

Before long we turned a bend in the river and approached the stunning Château de Belcayre perched on jagged rock promontories over the river. Although a Château, or fort or castle has been on this site since the 11th Century the current incarnation was heavily modernised in the 17th Century to reflect the extravagant designs of the times. It is now a pretty and decorative Château overhanging the river. Unfortunately no damsel in distress was hailing us from a tower window as we passed beneath gliding over the snaking green river-weed beneath us, whose flowers, daisy-like, form a rippling carpet. Our guide said it was called Water-Crowsfoot and that it flowers in early summer and then is washed away every autumn. It is not an invader from elsewhere. It provides a splendid habitat for damselflies as we watched the dazzling blue-bodied Western Demoiselle males court the green bodied and bronze-winged females.

Water Crowfoot flowering on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

Water Crowfoot flowering on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

When we had paddled our way to the stretch of the Vézère below Castel-Merle, we pulled out our canoes at the boat landing in Sergeac and our guide pointed us in the direction of the small hamlet whilst he set about preparing lunch with our driver, who had miraculously appeared. We spent ten minutes or so stretching our legs in the small lanes surrounding the massive church. As in all the villages hereabouts the local sandstone has been used to build everything. This gets a patina of weathered grey so you can tell the houses which have been recently purchased and cleaned up as the stone has a bright yellow appearance. In the village we came across the small museum of pre-history, and strangely birds-nests, which is now sadly closed. But more of this later when we visit Castel-Merle. For now we return to the river bank and our lovely picnic in the sun.

After our lunch, feeling sated and slightly dizzy from a glass of wine or two, we returned to our canoes for the final stretch down to St.-Léon-sur-Vézère. We passed the remnants of one more ruined lock gate and came into the village under the watchful gaze of the Château de Clérans, past the picnic spot under the willows where we lunched yesterday, past the Romance style village church and under the bridge which we were told had been built by Gustave Eiffel: it is certainly made with riveted girders and was perhaps a modest practise run for his more famous and larger structures. Just under the bridge and on the left bank we finished our paddling for the day. The river is running a little quickly here so we were thankful to get some help in disembarking safely and getting the boats ashore.

After a short break we started from the Eiffel bridge at St.-Léon-sur-Vézère and followed a centuries-old trail under the overhanging cliffs and through oak forests along the river for almost a mile to Castel-Merle. Here the wild surroundings made it possible to imagine the landscape as a pre-agricultural refuge for early humans, if not as the dry grassland that once existed here.

Students were working under a shed roof, excavating a thin layer of a floor 33,000 years old in a rock shelter called Abri Castanet. Abri means shelter in French, and this vallon, about 100 yards across and 300 yards long, has at the bases of its cliffs a dozen such shelters, containing some of the oldest known carvings and paintings, as well as cruder artefacts going much further back. Marcel Castanet, the first excavator at this spot, is the source of the name for Abri Castanet. His descendants still own the land — and Castel-Merle — and his son, René, used to run a small museum of prehistory in Sergeac, although many of his better finds can be found at the Pre-History Museum in Les Eyzies. René’s granddaughter, Isabelle Castanet-Daumas, an archaeologist, now owns the vallon and offers tours of its rock shelters.

In a hut beside the Abri Castanet, Dr. Randall White, a professor of anthropology at New York University, was excavating refuse from a 33,000-year-old bead workshop. He picked through bead-making residue with a pair of tweezers, separating tiny shards of hematite, used for polishing, from equally minuscule scraps of the charred reindeer antler and bone. The beads themselves were made of mammoth ivory and soapstone, materials prized apparently for their smoothness. Behind him, students uncovered a section of the ancient floor with brushes. “We’re picking through the garbage of everyday life 33,000 years ago,” he said, holding up the tiny ulna of a prehistoric bird or rodent.

The nomadic hunters called the Cro-Magnon, who were, like us, Homo sapiens, existed here from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, and wintered in the vallon sporadically over that time. The canyon sheltered them from cold winds, and the natural rock overhangs allowed them to hold heat inside by hanging hides over the openings of their shelters. It is thought that different groups met in those cold months and shared materials, techniques and genes before separating to go to their summer hunting grounds in the spring.

Their own ancestors had come to the Dordogne from Africa, taking thousands of years to get there only to find another human species already in residence — the Neanderthal.
Professor White believes that the shock of that contact was an impetus for the Cro-Magnon use of body ornamentation. “Ornamentation helped them organise into large groups and identify each other across wide distances,” he said. Their distinctive styles of beadwork and clothing made them identifiable as Cro-Magnon and differentiated them from the Neanderthals. In this view, ornamentation was not only the beginning of metaphor — the taking of an image or material out of one context and placing it in another — but also of the concept of social status. Abri Castanet is one of the richest sources of concrete evidence for ornamentation, though earlier so-called “find spots” exist in France and South Africa.

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Approaching the Chateau de Belcayre on the Vezere river, Perigord, France