Tag Archives: Guided

8 Day Loire Canoe Tour

Chateau_de_Chenonceau_Ra-smit

Château de Chenonceaux by Ra Smit

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Tour

This is an 7 Night, 8 Day Tour in which we canoe on the Loir, the Loire, the Creuse and the Cher in the Loire region of central France.

We will explore the valley of the Loire by canoe, see many of its famous Châteaux and experience its cuisine and wines.

The tour includes:

  • canoeing on 4 different rivers
  • is Fully Guided whilst on the river & trail
  • all transport between hotels and rivers
  • includes all accommodation in B&Bs & small Hotels
  • includes all breakfasts, lunches and evening meals
  • a canoe through the Château Chenonceaux
  • picnics on islands and wild swims
  • a visit to the Château where Leonardo Da Vinci lived
  • visits to several other famous Châteaux
  • and a visit to the Parc Naturel Regional la Brenne
Château de Chambord by Arnold Scherer

Château de Chambord by Arnold Scherer

Tour description

 The rivers of the Loire valleys are flowing west towards the Atlantic Ocean at Nantes. The Loire itself is one of Frances longest at about 1000km, and is reputed to have 1000 Chateaux along its length. The Loir is a picturesque tributary of the Sarthe river which flows into the Loire. It generally flows parallel to the Loire and slightly north. The Cher is a tributary of the Loire that runs just south of it and joins it near Tours. The Creuse river is south of the Loire and runs through the Parc Naturel La Brenne.
The rivers are calm, if a little quick in places, with easy paddling through beautiful scenery. We can expect little more than riffles and no rapids. During the day we will find an island to take our picnic lunch on and if the weather is hot enough enjoy a wild swim or two. We will have plenty of fun weaving between the islands and should have plenty of opportunity for wildlife watching.

In the evenings we will be able to spend time visiting the small riverside towns where we are staying before out evening dinner together either at the hotel or out in the town. We will also keep an eye out for local events that often occur in these towns and villages during the summer months: fetes, concerts and the like. Before our canoeing excursion each day we will perhaps visit a local market to procure our picnic lunch for the day.

Of course throughout we shall stay at remote and beautiful places and enjoy the regional cuisine and the local wines.

We will pass several Châteaux on the river as we canoe by but we will also have the opportunity to visit many of the Châteaux in person. Those of note include the Chambord, Blois, Chenonceux, Chaumont, Amboise, and Clos Lucé (where Leonardo da Vinci lived).

More details can be found on our website about this and all our other tours.

A 6 Day version of this Tour is available too.

Château de Châteaudun by Patrick Giraud

Château de Châteaudun by Patrick Giraud

Day to Day Schedule

Day 1. Arrival

You will be met at the Orléans TGV Railway station sometime around midday.

Alternative arrangements can be made for arrivals, such as at regional airports, by prior arrangement.

We will drive to Lavardin (1hr30mins) and stop here for a picnic lunch, get to know each other and go over the trip together.  If it’s warm enough we will have a wild swim in the Loir or take a walk around the beautiful hilltop town.

We will then have a 55 minute drive to our accomodation in Châteaudun, where we will stay for the evening.

Taking a break at Rigny-Usse on the River Loire, France

Taking a break at Rigny-Usse on the River Loire, France

Day 2. A paddle on the Loir

Today we will paddle the Loir river. In the morning we will have time to wander the town first, and perhaps visit the castle, before we drive upstream to Marboué  and then paddle back down to Châteaudun (6.5km). We will find a place for our picnic lunch on the island in town.

In the afternoon we will paddle from Douy to Saint-Jean Froidmentel (15km) and enjoy the scenery as we go.

After our paddle we will drive to Blois (about 45mins) to our hotel in the town. We will have time to wander around around before dinner in the evening.

Steve and Coral paddling on the River Loire, France

Steve and Coral paddling on the River Loire, France

Day 3. First day on the Loire.

Today we will travel up to Cavereau and paddle back to Blos (20km). We will have plenty of time to wild swim along the way as we explore the islands. Somewhere along the way we will stop for our picnic lunch.

During the paddle we will pass the château de Colliers, Church of Saint Dyé sur Loire (former port of Chambord), the village of Cour sur Loire and the Château de Menars.

After the paddle we will visit a local Chateau. The famous Chambord is close by, as are several others.

Tonight we will stay at the same hotel as last night.

Steve and Coral on the Loire, France

Steve and Coral on the Loire, France

Day 4. Second day on the Loire

Today we continue our paddle on the Loire and continue from Blois as we head to Chaumont (20km). Again we will be dodging islands, swimming and finding a private spot for our lunch.

We will paddle through Blois and pass by the Port de la Creusille, where you can see the traditional boats of the Loire.

Afterwards we will take the time to wander around the pretty town of Chaumont, again with its classic Chateau. We are staying in a hotel in town so we have plenty of time to explore before dinner.

Château de Clos Lucé by Nadègevillain

Château de Clos Lucé by Nadègevillain

Day 5. Third day on the Loire

Again we continue our adventure down the Loire as we head towards Amboise (18km).

More exploring of islands and such!

We will paddle beneath both the Château of Chaumont sur Loire and the Château Amboise.

At Amboise we will explore the Châteaux and perhaps also the Clos Luce which is the chateau where Leonardo de Vinci lived out his last years.

We then have to drive to our hotel at Le Blanc in the Parc Naturel La Brennes on the River Creuse (90mins).

The River Loire and the Chateau at Amboise, Loire, France

The River Loire and the Chateau at Amboise, Loire, France

Day 6. A canoe on La Creuse

In the morning we will have time to explore where we are staying before starting our day on the river.

Today we are paddling La Creuse a pretty river running through the Parc Naturel. After a short drive upstream we will put-in at Scoury, paddle past where we where staying at Le Blanc ou Le Blanc and continue onto Tournon St Martin. This is an all day paddle and we will, as usual, find a spot for our picnic lunch and very likely a place for a swim or two.

After our canoe we will relax on the riverbank for a little while enjoying the local wines before a short drive to Chenonceaux (80mins) where we will be staying for the night.

Steve and Coral arrive at Montsoreau under the Chateau, Loire, France

Steve and Coral arrive at Montsoreau under the Chateau, Loire, France

Day 7. A paddle on the Cher

 After a wander to explore our surroundings we will take to the Cher for a days paddle (18km) which finishes with a spectactular paddle beneath the Château Chenonceaux.

 This really is a wonderful stretch of river and we will take all day to enjoy it with a sumptious  picnic half-way through the long day as well as perhaps a swim or too.

When we are finished we will go for a beer or a glass of wine or an ice-cream in a cafe which overlooks the final stretch of our days paddling. If possible we will find the time to visit the Châteaux too.

We return to the same hotel we stayed in last night in Chenonceaux where we celebrate our adventures on the rivers of the region by having our final nights dinner together.

Kristine, Steve and Coral on Picnic Island, Loire, France

Kristine, Steve and Coral on Picnic Island, Loire, France

Day 8. Departure and Farewells

When we are ready we will drive for an hour and a half to the Orléans TGV Railway station for our return to Paris and beyond.

If time allows we can arrange to visit any of the Châteaux we may have missed, or indeed anything else in the vicinity, before the train departure.

Château de Blois by Tango1774

Château de Blois by Tango1774

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5 Day Célé: Day 2: Of Canoes and Weirs

In which the we canoe on the Célé for the first time.

These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Lot 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 second day of the Célé trip, where we begin our traverse down the Célé valley.

In the morning we came down and sat around the big table for breakfast. Bread, butter, home-made jams, coffee, juice and croissants. No problem. I fielded some questions about what we are to do today. It’s simple we are going to spend most of the day canoeing. I explain that the Célé is a narrow river and we will have to take care on our steering and spend more effort on avoiding the obstructions which will present themselves. In particular we shall want to avoid the overhanging trees and any ‘strainers’ in the river. Strainers are fallen tree which can block a canoe and more dangerously trap a person underwater if they have fallen out of a canoe. This is not such a danger on this river as the flow is not that fast. However rivers can always be dangerous. I also explain that we also have a number of barrages to get past today. These are small dams which we will have to portage around. It’s only a matter of stopping and carrying the boat a few yards. Nothing drastic. Finally I mention that an agreement has been reached between the canoe outfitters and the fishermen on the river that states that canoeing is only allowed between 11am and 6pm. The time before and after being reserved for fishing. We will see fishermen outside these hours but we don’t have to make any special provision for them. I mention that no powered boats are allowed on the Célé at all.

So, if we are not allowed on the river until 11am. What to do? I suggest to the group that we will arrange to meet Didier, our canoe outfitter, at Marcilhac at 11am. He will drive us all upstream to our put-in at St. Eulalie and we will paddle back to Marcilhac. Before 11am we could go on a small walk. Everybody is up for that so I suggest we get going in 15 minutes or so. This gives everyone enough time to get themselves together and get what they need for the day. It also gives Paul and I time to get the picnic materials sorted out.

The drive down to Marcilhac would take about half-an-hour. But when the road first reached the Célé Valley opposite the village of Haut Sauliac we stopped to take photographs. The bottom of the valley was full of cloud or mist and the village floated above it. By the time we got to our destination though most of the mist had lifted. Considering how much time we had before our rendezvous I persuaded Paul to run us up to the trail head on the road leading out of Marcilhac. We would walk the trails on top of the causses and then take the trail down. I pointed out to Paul where the trail came out of the woods and spilled onto the road. Meet us here at about 10.45 I said.

Up the road Paul pulled the van over at a forestry sign and everyone piled out. Paul sped off and left us to it. A short trail led away from here on a sandy track through a stand of pines. After about twenty minutes the trail fell out of the woods into a small clearing. In the clearing was a scrubby looking box bush and behind that, as I revealed, was a Dolmen. The educational plaque next it had been vandalised and so I had to explain what this was. They are burial sites of between 5,000 and 8,000 years of age. They are usually built in a type of Pi shape with two flat stones set on edge for the sides and a large flat stone placed on top. The body and sometimes some belongings are placed inside and the whole thing covered in local materials. In rocky places this would be small stones. If soil was present then this was piled up over the Dolmen. Such burial mounds are evident over all of Europe and even in India and the Far East. In Britain when they are still covered in earth they are called Tumuli. Over the centuries the weather has exposed many of them, many of them have been robbed of any remains and often the surrounding materials have been recycled. Nobody knows who the people were who made them, or why they made them or even why they are found in the places they are. The landscape around this part of France is littered with them.

We re-trace our steps through the woods, cross the road and start on another trail. The trail is marked by a concrete table which is fashioned in the style of a Dolmen and decorated with an outline of a Wild Boar. In the hunting season the hunters rendezvous here with their dogs before a hunting expedition. It’s not the hunting season now however and we can safely be on our way. We should however remember that Wild Boar do live in these scrublands on top of the Causses. I’ve walked the trails around here many times though and only seen them twice. On both occasions it was very early in the morning. I feel sure that any boar would hear us long before we got close to them.

Walking along the trail on this sunny morning we pay attention to the kind of landscape we are looking at. The old dry-stone walls indicate that this once was farming land. I know that until the 1950s all of this land on the plateau was grazing land for sheep. None of these small trees that are here now would have been here then. All this stuff is less than about 60 years old. It would have looked very different then. Some of the land up here has been closely managed in that time and re-planted with forest trees but much of it has also been left to grow back as it will.

Looking down on Marcilhac-sur-Cele

Looking down on Marcilhac-sur-Cele

The trail undulates along and we follow a few different types of butterflies; some Clouded Yellows, a few Blues, some Skippers and a lonely White Admiral. Before long we come to an obscured trail marker and turn a sharp right down a narrow trail. Every time I am here I think I should uncover the marker somehow as it is easy to miss. But then I don’t have the tools with me.

This new trail is the beginning of our descent down to the valley. I warn everyone that it can be steep, narrow and slippery. Be careful. As the trail narrows the box woods around become damper and covered in moss. You would think that the region up here would be quite dry, especially during the summer months, and especially as I imagine that the limestone is quite porous. For some reason though the path is damp and the moss clings to all the broken dry-stone walls either side of us. Then, surprisingly, the dampness leaves us and the trail breaks out in an almost open area where the moss is completely absent.

The Cliffs above the Cele, overlooking Marcilhac

The Cliffs above the Cele, overlooking Marcilhac

I recognise this place now as I turn off the trail on the left and bushwhack through the open scrub. All of a sudden we find ourselves perched above a cliff looking directly down on the Célé River and the village of Marcilhac below us. It’s a toy town. We can see the ruined abbey and the huge church. We can see the flour mill and the dam and following the river into the distance we can see where we are to canoe tomorrow. We can even see our van parked underneath the trees in the village square.

Getting back on the trail we continue our descent down the trails as it zigzags down the steep hill. Every so often we catch a glimpse of the valley upstream. We cannot see the river though. After a whole series of switchbacks the trees start to become larger and greener and before long we spill out onto the road. Paul is not here so we continue our descent until we bump into him where he has pulled in off the road. He’s deduced that it is not wise to park on the road itself. Their is not much traffic but the French country drivers don’t like to hang about. It takes a mere five minutes to drive the mile or so back to the village.

Back at the village every one gets themselves ready for a day on the water. Everything they need for the river must go into a dry bag. Perhaps they need to change shoes. Eventually Didier arrives in his minivan towing the canoes. I say hello. This might be the first trip on the Célé this season so we’ll catch up on what happened over the winter; holidays, travels and this and that. We will have to make a decision about our second guide. Are you canoeing or not. If so we will all pile into Didier’s bus and drive up stream to the put-in. We are paddling back to the village for the first day. If he doesn’t want to paddle then both minibuses can be driven and we’ll split between them.

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Once we are on the road Didier will attempt to stretch my French by only talking to me in French. Haha. This wont get him very far, but I like the way he does it. Didier is quite a character in this valley and seems to know everybody. From his outfitters place he helps run a place that not only provides canoes, but also climbing, mountain-biking caving and an assortment of other activities. Didier is also a musician and can often be found on a Wednesday or Thursday evening playing his guitar in a local pizza restaurant. But more of that later.

What we have to know as Didier drives in his slightly too fast way along the narrow and winding road is where we want to start our canoeing for the day. We have a choice of three places. The higher one, at Korn, gives us a very long day and is one we don’t often use. The middle one, which is nearer is awkward because you have to carry the canoes across a field and then launch from a very muddy bank. We have almost never used this since we’ve discovered the third choice which is the nearest, but which has a picnic table and a newly built ramp down to the water’s edge. This is where we will start.

When we get there Didier leaves the road and drives down a grassy track and turns the minibus around, somehow, without jack-knifing the trailer and canoes. I help him unstrap the canoes and unload them onto the grass.

I get everyone together so we can choose a suitable size of paddle and lifejacket for everyone. We choose out boats. We have decided who is canoeing with whom and I drag the boats down to the water’s edge. We are ready for take off. But first; the safety speech. Most of our guests are experienced canoeists but it is important to remind every one of certain precautions and procedures. We will have to deal with submerged rocks and overhanging trees and fallen trees; strainers. People do, from time to time, fall out of canoes, even on these simple rivers. Today we have three weirs to get past. Three short portages which can be slippery and dangerous. If we have anyone on the trip who hasn’t canoed for a while I will go over the main canoeing strokes and remind them of who does what in bow and stern. If we have children with us then we will turn all these reminders into a quick lesson and, I’ll suggest, that when we find suitable spots on the river in the first hour or so we will stop and revise some of the things mentioned here. It sounds a lot, all this talking, but it doesn’t take long and soon I’m wading ankle deep in the stream getting the first couple onboard and away. As each boat departs I tell them to canoe a little way and then to wait until we are all together on the water. Soon I am in the last boat and waiving farewell both to Didier and our other guide (if he’s not on the water with us). Otherwise we will meet a little way downstream at Espagnac.

The river is narrow this far up, and shallow too, so everyone must take care in steering a good line by avoiding the banks and following the V’s that indicate a good and deep enough channel. I will lead the way at first so we can play follow the leader until after about ten minutes or so we come to a wider pool and I can turn into an eddy.

When I slip into a deep and wide pool with eddies on either side I spin out and ask the others to do the same and tuck in behind me. Sometimes this can be a bit chaotic but eventually we are all in the eddy and ready for some instruction. I explain about the speed of the water and how we can see how fast the water is moving in the centre of the river and with quiet pools either side where the water is slow, if not stationary. We can use these differentials in speed to help us both stop our canoes and turn, if we wish.

If, when coming down fast water we turn the bow of the canoe into slow water – and I point out that the line between the two can easily be seen – then the nose of the canoe will be braked by the slow water and the force of the fast water will push the stern of the canoe around until the canoe is facing upstream and we can paddle forward into the eddy itself.

This ‘Eddy Turn’ is a very useful manoeuvre and is not only a way of stopping and taking a rest as we are doing now but is an important way of stopping in the midst of a busy rapid so that we can take a rest and check the way ahead before starting off again.

I then mentioned that the opposite movement was ‘Peeling Out’ and in this situation we poked the bow of the canoe out from the slow water, as we face upstream, and into the fast current and the force of the water turns the canoe around until we are moving downstream in the current.

We should practise these techniques where we can as we canoe the next few days and use the slow pools and eddies to stop at every opportunity. Just downstream from here I said is the bridge to the village of Espagnac, we will go under the bridge on the river right and then eddy turn onto the beach on river left. We shall be leaving our canoes on the beach for a while as we walk around the village. Let’s try the Eddy Turn there and don’t think about simply scooting under the bridge on the river left and running into the bridge as it is far too shallow and is often blocked by fallen branches anyway.

Before we leave however we should practise another manoeuvre called the ‘Upstream Ferry’ or ‘Front Ferry’. This technique is designed so that we can cross from one side of the river to another without going any further downstream (or upstream for that matter). This is very useful in a long rapid if the obstructions presented to you mean you have to quickly change sides. The only disadvantage is that you have to face upstream to do it and this probably means you need to eddy out first, before ferrying over. I pointed out that a more advanced technique the ‘Downstream Ferry’ or ‘Back Ferry’ does exist but this requires an extra level of ability. Learn the upstream version first and get competent in that before attempting the downstream version.

To begin the ‘Upstream Ferry’ we naturally need the canoe to be facing upstream, which it would be if we have just done an eddy turn into the quiet water. When tandem canoeing we need the bow paddler to have his paddle on the upstream side and the stern paddler to have his on the downstream side. Each paddler has a separate job.

The bow paddlers job is to canoe forward with just enough energy and force that the canoe is neither pushing upstream or being pushed downstream. The stern paddlers job is to maintain the angle of the canoe to the current at approximately 30 degrees. In this way, much as a yacht tacks against the wind, the canoe will progress across the stream without forging forwards or drifting backwards. When the other side is reached the stern paddler can release the angle he has been holding so that the bow of the canoe rotates around until the canoe is facing downstream and the pair can continue on the side of the river they want to be on.

It sounds complicated but after a few demonstrations and after a few criss-crosses of the river everyone has got the hang of it. If you are canoeing solo then of course you have to do both jobs; keeping the angle and the correct pace. At first it seems difficult to keep the correct angle, which depends entirely on the force of the river, and the forward paddling in balance. The canoe moves sideways across the stream very easily and the amount of forward paddling can be much less than expected.

We spend twenty minutes or so here before we peel out for the last time and continue on or way. It’s not long before we get to the bridge and as I expected the bridge has captured some fallen branches on the left hand side and we have to negotiate the shallows, the rocks and the quickening water as it passes under the rightmost arch before doing an eddy turn into the shallows and hopping out on the beach. Everyone does this in quite good style which is just as well because if you miss the turn the river doesn’t have a good place to stop for a few hundred yards.

We drag the canoes up onto the gravel beach, ditch our lifejackets and grab our cameras and things from our dry bags. We will leave our stuff here whilst we go for a short walk around the village.

First though we will examine the strange behaviour of a cloud of butterflies which are fluttering about by a shallow pool and collecting on the damp sand in quite some numbers. I explain that the butterflies are ‘puddling’ which is a way for them to extract minerals and amino acids from the damp sand or soil. Many species do this. Today we can see two large types of butterfly here which are generally black and cream, or black and white or black and yellow. These are Europes only Swallowtails. The stripes of the Swallowtail are at right-angles to the body whilst those of the Scarce Swallowtail are parallel to the body (approximately). The tails of the Swallowtails can be seen clearly. These are thought to disguise the tail of the butterfly to look like the head. They have eye-spots here and the tails represent the antennae. Birds are said to attack the ‘wrong’ end and the butterfly can make an escape. These are Europes largest butterflies too.

Also puddling are many ‘blues’. When I’ve looked closely before they are usually Common Blues or Turquoise Blues. Blues are quite hard to differentiate though. I usually wait until I can get home and compare the photograph with the guide book. Sometimes other butterflies are here too.

After amusing ourselves trying to photograph the butterflies we move off and climb the sandy path up to the road. We can see that the village is called ‘Espagnac St. Eulalie’ which allows me to explain that immediately after the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century it was decided that to reduce the power and influence of the Catholic Church and as a paean to Secularism all saints names would be removed from village names. The village was called St Eulalie, for reasons which will become apparent in a moment, and it was renamed Espagnac which I presume was a local name hereabouts anyway.

You can imagine that contrary to such a diktat the locals continued to use the name they had always used no matter what the new sign said. So in time both names came to be used which is why it has the double name we see today. These types of names can be seen all over France.

We continue our short walk into the village admiring the faded pale yellow limestone houses which has worn to lichen covered grey. The walls are draped with brightly coloured flowers; trumpet vines and roses and pelargoniums. If it spring then irises will be in flower where they sprout from the tops of walls and all manner of wild flowers will be crammed into all the spaces.

On turning the corner we will come to a cast iron gate which leads into the church grounds. The church is looming above us and we can see the large arched window overlooking the apse. Opening the gate we go inside and walk down the path past a couple of buttresses to the main entrance; a large dark wooden door down some curved steps. It is often locked, but from time to time it is open and you can go inside. A notice advise that a neighbour has a key and you go and fetch it if you want to. I rarely do and merely rely on happenstance. The churches in this valley, they are all Roman Catholic, cannot afford to have a Parish priest each these days and a single priest will look after a half-a-dozen churches up and down the valley. This church will see a service every month or so. The bells will still be rung, however. On the hour and every hour with a special chime for Mass (Angelus), usually at 7am. I imagine that these days the bell-ringing is automated.

Church at Espagnac

Inside the Church at Espagnac

The inside of the church is very ornate and surprisingly light and airy. It is heavily decorated and has many statues it’s always a wonder to be in here.

Outside again the path leads on to a small cemetery and to the left a tall broken wall. This is part of the remainder of the Abbey that was once here. We shall have to go around the other side to get a better view. So returning to the road via the gate we continue down the only street past a couple more cottages and the ‘Maires’ office. Some posters are stuck on a board here to advertise local events. The most common seem to be village fairs with bands and feasting. A map is painted on a sign here too and on closer inspection it tells us that we are on the Compostella, the ‘Way of St. James’ and a pilgrim route that would take you all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

If you step back into the road you can get a glimpse of the clock tower of the old Abbey. A rather odd construction of wood and what seems brick. Again we will have to go around the back to see it properly.

The Belfry at Espagnac

The Belfry of the Monastery at Espagnac

Further down the street we come to an arched gateway which leads into an area which has a slightly cloistered feel. This is in fact the ‘Gîtes d’Etape’, or hostel where the pilgrims stay. I have stayed here myself in the past. After the arched gate on the right is a large bunk room and on the left is a steep staircase to numerous single and double rooms. Further on the left is the doorway to the kitchen and dining areas. Everything is beautifully archaic and medieval. The doorways are all arched and rather low, but the facilities are up-to-date and clean and it can get busy here in the summer.

Walking on further you pass another cottage on the left whilst on the right is a broken wall. Eventually you turn right and come into the courtyard of the old Abbey. Finally you can see the strange tower in all its glory and in front of you the remains of a double row of cloisters. Sometimes in the summer a small cafe is open here. A public toilet is also available.

The open grass in front shows how large the Abbey must have been. In its heyday of the 13th Century their were Nuns here and up to 100 Augustine monks. The Abbey was abandoned some time after the revolution.

On the edge of this patch of grass is a wall and behind that wall is a small vegetable garden. I always like to peak over the wall to see how they are getting on. It always seems to be immaculate and yet I never see the gardener.

Returning to the main road we can look at the building opposite and to the right which appears to be a sort of community hub. I’ve seen various exhibitions in this space. Once it was posters and pictures depicting various stages on the Way of St. James. More recently it was some information on the re-introduction of the growing of Saffron from a particular type of Crocus. They were selling some saffron products too but sadly we were usually here on a Sunday and the place was invariably closed.

Opposite this place is a rather vulgar statue, it must stand two metres high, of a pilgrim. Not much to say about that. Several of the lintels above the doors around here are also decorated with a scallop shell which is the accepted symbol for St. James and the pilgrimage.

Golden Pheasant

Golden Pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) at Espagnac

If you sneak into the property just here, which I presume is private, then you will discover a large bird cage. Inside is a pair of Pheasants. But these are not your everyday pheasants, but Golden of Chinese Pheasant. The male is spectacular: he has a golden head with a tiger striped ruff, and bright red chest with a bright green and black nape and luminous blue wings, a yellow back and a very long gold and brown speckled tail. Quite the handsome beast.

So after this little diversion we return to the canoes to continue on our way.

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Back at the beach we get ourselves together again. Stuff is stashed in the dry-bags and the lifejackets are put back on. Looking at the river it is obvious that we have to canoe through some small rapids. Little more than a riffle really. The good news is that the run through the rapid as it takes a bend in the river is straightforward and a line of neat Vs (pointing downriver) lead the way. We shall have nothing complicated to do. Just stay in the middle of the stream. Head straight through the Vs and mind the boulders.

Each canoe in turn paddles out from the beach in an upstream direction and then peels into the main current before turning downstream. Every one has given themselves enough room to do this and I follow last of all. If I hadn’t be comfortable about everyone I would have gone first to lead the way and then eddy turned beyond the riffle to watch every one coming down. When all the guests are confident like this then I can sweep down the river behind them. Though I generally move up and down the line just to have a chat and see how they are getting on.

I remind them that the person in the front has to make the decision about the direction to take and has to calculate where the deeper and fast water is, and sometimes make a decision between the lesser of two evils. The advantage though is that the front boat gets to see the wild-life.

As usual we will see the Wagtails (usually Grey and Pied, but occasionally Yellow). We can easily recognise the swooping undulating flight and the characteristic wag of the tails when they are walking on the water’s edge. Where the water is slightly more rough we may also see the Dipper which is a round Robin-like bird which is black with a white chest. They too like to feed on the insects in the water. They are said to dip right under the water at small cascades but I’ve never seen this.

In recent years we have seen more Sandpipers on the river. These fly off in a little flurry with a straighter flight than the Wagtails and Dippers.

As we negotiate the bends and turns I push myself to the front of the flotilla and remind the current leader that we have three small barrages to cross today. Each of them will require a small portage of a few yards. Each of them will be portaged on the right. Be careful when approaching them and when sliding the boat over be especially careful as the rocks are slippery. Also, I said, we will be taking a break after the second one as that is where we are having lunch.

The bird that everyone wants to see is the Kingfisher and we are usually lucky enough to see them. Although only small on a sunny day the blue flash as they fly away, in a direct and straight flight, often only a foot or so above the river, gives them away. The metallic blue really does catch the light. Often we push a Kingfisher, or sometimes a pair, downstream in this manner. I’ve been told that each pair has a mile or so of territory. If we push them downriver far enough then they will either cut across a bend in the river to get past us, fly high into a tree and wait for us to go by, or, more rarely fly back over our heads. When they do this we get a glimpse of the orangey red belly of the bird. It seems to me that on the Célé the Kingfishers are quite shy as you can never seem to get near them, whereas on the Dordogne you get closer to them. Perhaps they are more used to humans in canoes.

Weir on the Cele

Before long we approach the first barrage and I slip ahead to get my boat out of the water and out of the way. I can then help the others as they come one at a time. In a short while we are all past the obstacle and after a quick stretch of the legs we get going again. This place in the Moulin Vieux, a popular camp-site in the height of summer. I remember watching a World-Cup football match here a few years ago on a big screen in a Marquee. But on we go today; we’ve a lunch waiting for us.

The river continues in its quiet way. We dodge the shallows and negotiate the little rapids where the stream speeds up. In the deep pools we can see small shoals of fish beneath us. We can recognise the vertical stripes on the Perch, the yellowish fins and feelers on the Barbels (which are like a catfish) and sometimes we can recognise the green colour, with a reddish stripe, and the red tinged fins of the Rainbow Trout. The fish are impossible to identify when they are small though.

In time I will notice the road bridge at Brengue approaching and warn the others that we have the second portage coming up. After passing the bridge we forgo the new ramp built into the bank on the right and slide under a Weeping Willow to approach the barrage on the right side. The barrage is merely a collection of large rocks which has been placed across the river. As far as I know it doesn’t represent the site of an old mill like the previous barrage. I think it was built to provide a deep pool for children to swim in and perhaps a place for fishermen. In any case after a bit of work and some slippery moments we manage to get all the canoes out of the water and up onto the bank. Side-stepping the stinging nettles which sometimes grow here we manhandle, carry and slide the boats down to the beach so that they are in place after lunch. Who mentioned lunch? Steve is here, with the van and has already started setting out the lunch on a picnic table under the trees. This is a Municipal Campsite and I tell everyone where the bathrooms are. This place has great facilities.

Hauling across a Weir

Steve hauls a canoe over a weir

I can now help Steve get the lunch prepared, starting with a nice glass of wine and a quick wash of hands with that chemical stuff. In no time at all the picnic was laid out. Good fresh bread, many different cheeses, some dried sausage, a pate, some hame and lots of chopped vegetables and salad. With pickles and mustard and cool water and plenty of wine it was a feast. Plenty of fruit too, and perhaps a taste of chocolate to finish off. And then, perhaps, a little nap.

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When everyone is sufficiently rested then we pack away the picnic and stroll down to the beach to get back into our canoes. We have one more barrage to get past and I estimate it will take us another hour or perhaps ninety minutes to get there. We have plenty of time and are in no rush.

The afternoon paddle is much as before. Without disturbing the Mallard ducks too much, who often seem to be trailing little families, we cruise down the river changing sides when necessary to avoid the water that is too shallow and taking the quicker current where we can. Mostly it is easy work and we can enjoy the sun and cool off by dragging our hands, and sometimes, our feet, in the water. Every now and again we have to pay a bit more attention as they river gets narrow and pushes us quickly. Some of these places have light hazards in the way of overhanging trees and bushes. In particular you don’t want to become entangled in a wild rose bush.

Most of the time the river has trees either side and the road is not close to us. As the river sweeps in large turns we see the white limestone cliffs of the valley. First close on this side, and then the other. We don’t pass very many buildings at all, although if you are keen eyed you can catch a glimpse of the troglodyte houses which are built into the cliffs high above us. These are the types of houses which uses the cliff-face itself as the back-wall of the house. It seems that it would be impossible for a road to reach them, but I’ve walked up there and they do indeed have small tracks leading up there. They must have spectacular views up and down the valleys. I just wouldn’t want to be a window cleaner.

As we mostly drift down we raft up together in places for a small chat. The fish can be seen clearly when we drift over shallow pools. They flash away from us like underwater ghosts. We keep seeing the usual birds. From time to time we approach a heron, but they always flap away before we reach them. These too we push down the river until they deign to go back over us or stand, gangling and high in a tree, to let us slip by underneath.

The trees on the banks are of numerous species, though the most common are Black Poplars and White Poplars, Alders and Aspen, with White Willows from time to time. In the spring and early summer you can tell when a Lime (Linden) Tree is passed as the scent of its flowers wafts very strongly over the river. Another tree that flowers prettily at this time of year is the False Acacia whose white flowers drape in long trails over the water. You will also catch the May Blossom from Hawthorn bushes too.

A variety of birds will cross the river as we go down. Plenty of the crow family for example, including the colourful Jay with its flash of pink and electric blue. Sometimes a Green Woodpecker will cross – looking all the world as colourful as a parrot; luminous green with a very bright red head.

Bridge and Willow on the Cele

Bridge and Willow on the Cele

Before long we are coming under the bridge at St. Sulpice and approaching the last barrage of the day. Sometimes, early in the season the river has enough water that a route can be found, towards the left, where it is possible to canoe through. It’s always a bit bumpy though. Generally it is easier to coast up to the corner of the barrage and disembark. I go first and drag my canoe onto the rocks. I can then grab the other canoes, help people get out. It is slippery, and then get them to walk around to the other side of the barrage. I can then slip the empty canoe (though it is still carrying the bags and paddles) over the rocks so it slips into the pool below. The guests can then catch the canoe and either prepare to go on down river or pull over for a short break. It is easier shooting the canoes over like this than it is to manhandle the canoes around the obstacle. It’s more fun too.

If it the height of summer and hot enough we can take a break here for swimming. If you are of a mind then you can climb in amongst the rocks and lower yourself into the surf and get yourself a very pleasant shoulder and back massage. If your limbs are tired from canoeing, perhaps if you haven’t done it for a while then this can be great fun. The river is very strong though so you must be careful not to be swept away and you must avoid getting your feet trapped in the rocks.

The afternoon is probably wearing on by now so I encourage everyone to get their skates on. If I mention that Marcilhac has a lovely cafe with cold beers waiting for us then I usually have little difficulty in persuading people that it is time we were off.

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We have about another hour of canoeing to reach Marcilhac. It’s smooth sailing all the way home and noticeable that the river is slowing down. This is because the river is dammed at Marcilhac where a water-mill is in operation. The river is backed up behind this dam and this becomes at lot more noticeable the closer we get.

The river is still turning in large bends and the limestone cliffs are getting closer on this side, and then on the other. The only surprise in store for us is a place on the river where an underground chamber opens out. Several times when passing here I’ve been astonished to notice some bubbles seeping up from below and then been shocked to see a surfacing scuba-diver. Apparently you can swim into a cave from here for a kilometre or so. We often see a group of wet-suit clad divers getting themselves prepared on the bank. Just occasionally we almost run one over.

The last bend of the day brings us past a camp-site on the right bank where a blue punt is always tied up; it’s ‘Philippe’! The water is sluggish now and it’s the end of a long day but finally we round the bend, taking the outside, as it’s shallow and muddy on the inside, and get to the pool above the Marcilhac Dam. A grassy bank is on our left and we turn towards it before driving our canoes ashore.

Steve is here to help us and we drag the canoes to the corner and flip them over. We will return here tomorrow to continue our journey downstream. Meanwhile we load our paddles and lifejackets into the van. If necessary we can change our clothes and boots and then we can head towards the cafe.

We’ve been coming to this village for some years now and at one time we used to stay in a Chambre D’hôte in the village and have dinner at Madame Pierette’s place. She cooked a wonderful dinner. No menu, you ate what you were given. More especially you have to finish each course before the next would come out. The number of times I had to make my way through a mountain of roast potatoes. Our schedule doesn’t allow to have dinner here any more, which is a shame, and she no longer has the energy to do lunches, except a Sunday lunch occasionally. I shall have to make a special effort to get to one of these lunches one day soon.

Meanwhile we do make sure that we visit here for drinks after a day on the river like we have just finished. It’s always fantastic to roll up and surprise everyone and they never know when we shall turn up. If it’s the first trip of the year, or the last then it’s always a special occasion. Everyone has a hug and we sit on the rickety white tables underneath the shade provided by a grape vine. Madame Pierette will then bring over a vast tray of assorted beers and wines for everybody. It’s a fabulous way to round of an a day on the river.

Imagine my horror then when after loading and locking the van I began to stroll over to the cafe when I noticed everyone had gathered in the bar opposite Madame Pierette’s place. What to do. Drinks had already been ordered. I had to sit down with them and hide myself from view from the cafe opposite. I had to explain and I had to make everyone promise that we would cross the street when our first beer was drunk. It was a disaster. I was so embarrassed. Worse I caught out of the corner of my eye that the daughter of Madame Pierette, Cecile had seen me. I was mortified and ashamed.

After ten minutes of squirming and shifting in my seat I managed to get everyone across the road to the correct bar. Madame Pierette was of course as lovely as always. She probably hadn’t even noticed. But Cecile was relentless in her taunting of me. She would never ever let me forget. Even if I did notice a small wink in her eye. All the guests were of course terribly amused by the faux pas. In any case it was no hardship to have a second beer. I had to have a third beer to calm my nerves.

Fairly soon it was time to leave and after even more hugs and kissed cheeks we managed to leave and pile back into the minibus for the short twenty minute drive back to the farm-house.

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We bounce down the Célé Valley road until we reach the bridge at Sauliac which we cross and then take the narrow road that climbs  the side of the cliff. Across the valley we can see both the low and the high villages of Sauliac. The road wends its way up passing a tiny road that leaves back down to the river; this leads to the Chāteau de Géniez, a mysterious place which can neither be seen from here, above it, or even when you canoe right past it on the river.

When the road gets to the top of the cliff and has reached the Causse it leaves the valley. Shortly we arrive at a junction where we must turn right through a small wood. The road becomes even narrower now and has tufty pieces of grass growing in the middle. Eventually the road breaks out of the woods with fields on either, with perhaps a sheep or two. If you look closely you will notice that the sheep have strange black eyes. That’s the way they are around here.

Passing another junction where a road comes in from the left we continue on until we come to the hamlet of Aynac. No more than a small collection of farm houses. But we are not there yet and we must continue again down a short hill where we pass more sheep on the right and a smart market garden on the left.

The roads turns right and in a few hundred yards as we rumble past the hedges we finally arrive back at La Métairrie Basse, Helen and Richard’s place. Everyone bundles out of the van and grabs there stuff from out of the back. Depending how late we are, and what the weather is like, we will be able to spend an hour or so at the pool before getting ready for dinner.

Richard has converted one of the old barns into a small swimming  pool which is cunningly hidden away. A gate through the old wall of the stone barn leads into an enclosed space, with the barn roof long gone; this is where the pool is. It’s small of course but just big enough to cool off after a long hot day. There are some tables and chairs up here too so it is also possible to relax and read and have a bottle of beer.

Either before or after using the pool Steve and I will find some time to clean up our picnic dishes and put away our food in the fridge. We’ll try to not get in the way of Richard and Helen working in the kitchen. Usually by this time dinner has already been prepared and is bubbling away in the oven. We’ll try to make a guess about it can be.

After that we’ll take a quick shower and then be ready downstairs for a pre-prandial drink with our hosts. Generally that means Richard. He will offer us some of their home-made drinks; perhaps a Vin Noix, a Ratafia or a Fénelon. Everyone soon joins us as we make ourselves comfortable on the sofas and armchairs. If it high summer we may be sitting outside, but if it’s autumn time then we may be sitting cosily with a small fire going.

The conversation will generally turn to the farm house and Richard will patiently tell the story of how they came to be here and how they worked together to re-build from the ruins they found. It’s a good tale and Richard is entertaining as he tells it, even if he does resemble a slightly sinister Blofield as he holds one of his beloved cats. They are both quite mad about cats and I suppose living out here in the wild they do have their uses.

In time Helen will call us to dinner and we will arrange ourselves round the large dining table. We will then enjoy a splendid three course dinner that has been home-made and very likely includes vegetables from their own garden. Every evening I have stayed here has been a simple pleasure. Plenty of wine and easy conversation. From time to time we have other guests too, not on our canoe trip, but often guests that are walking the Way of St. James, or least a section of it. This always adds an extra dimension to the conversation.

At the end of the meal, perhaps after a fiery Eau de Vie, which has been distilled locally we will retire back to the armchairs, or, more often than not, slip away to bed. It’s been a long day and we will have more of the same tomorrow.

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5 Day Célé: Day 1: Arriving and settling in

In which the cast is introduced and the scene is set.

These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Lot 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 first day of the Célé trip, where we arrive on the train from Paris (or at a regional airport) at Brive. A short drive to the Célé valley at Marcilhac for a picnic lunch and then continuing onto our B&B on the Causse above the valley.

Standing on the railway platform at Brive we wait for the train from Paris to pull in. It’s 1pm and we’re hoping that our guests have managed to catch the 9am departure from Paris Austerlitz and have made it all the way here without having been shuffled down the branch line to Perigeaux – sometimes the train divides at Limoges and on one occasion we have had a guest on the wrong half! If our guests have not made the 9am departure then we will have to wait until the 2pm to see if they made the 10am departure. Standing on the platform can be a nervous experience. We are wearing our team T-shirts and I’ve got my ‘outfitters’ hat on. If I’m in the mood I might also be carrying a canoe paddle. This is just so to make us look like we are your guides for the trip.

If all goes well we will meet safely on the platform, introduce each other and get all the luggage and paraphernalia loaded into the back of our minibus ready for the journey south to the Célé Valley. It should take us about 90 minutes.

At first we will snake out of the city of Brive, passing numerous and wildly decorated roundabouts before descending to the motorway that heads south. The first part of the journey will be a dull motorway drive. But let’s try to get it over with. Soon we will leave the motorway and ease ourselves onto the slower, winding roads that cross the Causses. The drive will take us along some obscure byways across the plateau until eventually we will drop in to the deep valley.

There is not much to see along these roads. Drystone walls and overgrown sheep fields, small villages with large churches. The occasional pond. When the road does eventually start to drop down into Marcilhac we can see the limestone cliffs on the other side and the small tree-lined river meandering along the valley floor. In the past we used to stay in Marcilhac and that was handy for our travels by canoe. For some reason though we no longer use the place. At one time the Chambre d’hôte we did use was being run by an old person. I remember she was famous for her extensive home-made jams which were available at breakfast. All sorts of flavours. But then she retired and was replaced by a younger woman who soon let the place deteriorate. Eventually we could use it no more.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Marcilhac

Marcilhac on the Cele river

Anyway we take a break here at the village and park under the sycamores in the square and walk down to the lawned river bank to find a picnic table. We set up the picnic by spreading a table cloth and laying out the breads and cheese and pates and meats. We slice some vegetables and make a quick salad and make sure we have some fresh fruit on the table too. Normally we open a bottle (or a box – as it travels better in a canoe!) of wine and everyone can sit down together and enjoy a glass of wine and a simple lunch. It’s warm and sunny and we can relax to the point of sleepiness. Before we drop off though and before everyone wanders off to look around the old church and the ruined abbey in the village I get the maps out and go over what we shall be doing in the next few days. It’s not difficult. We shall canoe down the Célé!

Depending on how much time we have left of the afternoon, and remembering we shall be back in the village tomorrow I’ll suggest that we only have so much time to wander around before we should hop back into the van and get on our way. It’s only a short drive of about 20 minutes or so.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Sauliac

Looking down on Sauliac-sur-Cele, Lot, France

We have to drive further down the valley to the next village of Sauliac, across the bridge and up the steep road the other side to a little hamlet and beyond that a small farmhouse all on its own.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Sauliac

At the Metairie Basse

This is Richard and Helen’s place. They’ve spent ten years running a B&B here and first spending many years re-building the farm which had become a ruin. We are welcomed into the house and shown our rooms. The guests can repair straight to the small swimming pool. A tiny affair built into one of the old barns. We relax here for an hour or so having a couple of beers, before going back to change and dress for dinner.

Richard does the cooking. Well, the main course anyway. Helen does the starter and desert. First however Richard invites us to taste one of his home made aperitifs. How about a Fenelon? This is a potent mixture of Red Wine, Cassis and Walnut Liqueur. How about Vin Noix or Vin Chataigne. After chatting a little while with our drinks we are invited to table. It’ll be an interesting evening as the food is good and the wine is free and Richard will take over the role of host. The conversation flows back and forth, the subjects touched are not divisive, and everyone seems happy in the warm atmosphere. Even if the subject area does slip into religion or politics nobody seems to be taking the points made in a personal way. This is good because from time to time things can get a bit hot and sometimes in the past the subjects have got a bit hairy. Richard seems to be good at steering the conversation away from any dangerous places and is quite self-effacing if it appears to him that he become too insistent in his opinions. It’s a real pleasure when the evenings can be like this. It can be a nightmare when you have guests who take offence at everything. It can be worse if we have guests who have no conversation at all. Fortunately that doesn’t happen often. At the end of the meal Richard treats those that want it to a fiery digestif of Eau de Vie. Probably something that’s been distilled in the back yard. But that’s another story.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Sauliac

At the Metairie Basse

6 Day Perigord: Day 2: Chateaux, Locks and Lunch

In which we go canoeing for the first time.

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 second day of the Perigord trip, where we go canoeing together for the first time.

The next morning everyone gathers at breakfast. A simple affair. Juice, coffee and croissants. The mood is good and the weather looks fine. Paul and I go over the day. We’ll do a short canoe trip in the morning and then visit a cave shelter in the afternoon. And then we’ll see if we can fit anything else in.

Some of us are going to walk down to the village but before we do that we have to ensure that everyone has the gear they need for the day organised. Dry-bags are issued for stuff to carry on the canoe. Also walking shoes and extra clothes can be put in the van for use later.

It’s a rigmarole explaining what to take. Wet weather gear, cameras, phones, wallet, sunscreen, hat and all the other bits and pieces. It’s important to explain that all the stuff should be ready to hand. Even a change of clothing in case you fall in and a fleece or something as the cave can be chilly. It’s the first day so I try to be patient. They’ll get the hang of things in a few days and van will turn in a tumbling mass of everyone’s gear.

Paul and I have pulled out the picnic gear that we’ll use for our lunches and have loaded up the cooler with stuff from the fridge. Two frozen water bottles will accompany the wine box. Those that are walking with me then set off down the hill. Like last night its an easy walk. The lane is interesting as we pass several houses. Nobody is about. Not even a rabid dog.

I’m thankful no-one is clacking down the road with walking poles. What’s that all about. I never really get it. Have to be careful though as some people have dodgy knees and need them. Still hate the clack clack clack though.

Lower down the hill we pass some fields on our right. they’ve already been cut for hay which is a pity as earlier in the season they are waist high with grasses and flowers and it’s a great spot for photographing butterflies. Early in the morning I’ve often found Marbled Whites still roosting at the top of long stems of grass. Sometimes a Common Blue too and from time to time Six Spot Burnets in their red and black livery.

Just before we come to the crossroads at the entrance to the village we pass Louis Dega cycling back up the hill. He’s wearing his customary outfit: dungarees, Wellington boots, floppy hat and wire-rimmed spectacles. He looks all the world like Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. That’s Louis Dega. We’ve been seeing him on this stretch of road for a couple of seasons now. Always on this road, up or down, always on his bicycle and always dressed the same. We wave and smile and he waves and smiles too. We have no idea who he his or where he lives or what he does. He just is. A familiar and strangely reassuring sight.

In seasons past we’ve had other Degas. At one time we had a strange chap who used to be seen walking the road between St. Leon and Montignac. He was walking one way or the other clutching a carrier bag. He walked with a slight hunch and stoop. In the last season we saw him he had started wearing a luminous visibility jacket. We can only presume someone had given it to him. It looked dangerous as he was always carelessly walking along the main road. And then one season he was gone. We missed him, but now we have a new Dega. We’ve christened them all Degas now. Every village has it’s own Dega. We have a theory about that now and we look out for them. Possibly in the back of our minds we have ambitions to a be Dega ourselves.

Paul tells me about the Dega in his village back at home.

He’s called Dan and is often to be seen riding around on a mower. It’s a John Deere.
That’s important as he’s very loyal to the brand, as many of these guys are. He’s loyal to no end for certain brands; trucks and sports teams for example. He wears Boston Red Sox hats, socks, shirts and gloves. He works hard and appreciates real friendship. He’s a bit slow but “knows” people well particularly when someone is using or belittling him. He speaks with a high nasal voice. He’s 62 years old, wiry and thin with bowed legs, but he’s strong and just does the work he needs to do with no complaint. He has simple pleasures and a singular purpose in completing the task at hand. He’s a man of few words, but if you show an interest many words will spill out and keep coming. He has, as they probably all do, some odd hobbies and habits.

I reminisce about Mr Fox, the fellow that used to wander around my village at home in Kent. He actually worked for the council doing various bits and pieces around the village. He pushed a hand-cart full of his gardening tools. He had a cleft palate and so talked funny. Kids in the village used to tease him mercilessly and imitate his voice cruelly. He was liked though I think and I knew him too as a fixture in the local church where he was a churchwarden. What is that strange pole thing that churchwardens carry in church sometimes? Also what is a sides-man?

Arriving in the village we stroll over the bridge and down into the canoe place. I remark that the bridge was designed by Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. It’s a simple truss bridge built with iron girders and rivets. I was once told this was an Eiffel bridge but I can find no evidence or documentation. The canoe place is a grassy sward next to the river with a huge pile of canoe and kayaks, obviously, and a marquee where we find Philippe who greets us like long lost friends. He’s a bear of a man and built like a rugby player. We’ve learnt in the past that he has canoed for France in sprint events. He’s all smiles as we get everyone a paddle and a life-jacket.

We look at the river, which is running more swiftly than we thought past the pontoon. This is where we finish for the day so don’t go sailing past I remind everyone. Normally on the river we stick together but sometimes people like to go on ahead. That’s fine by us as long as they understand that they will have to deal with any obstacles themselves and woe betide them if they miss the place where we will stop for lunch or the take-out point for the day. It has happened. We have had irate clients. And when it does we have to take the criticism on the chin. ‘I told you so’ just doesn’t cut it.

Anyway we pile into the van for the short run up to Montignac where we will start todays paddle. On this first day we could have two guides on the river but Paul has decided not too and will instead rendezvous with us at the lunch spot in Sergeac. In the van I forget to remind Philippe not to take the back road over the bridge in Thonac. It’s annoying as the road runs alongside the river and gives pleasant views and passes one of the picturesque Châteaux we will pass on the canoes. I don’t like to have the clients get a preview like this so I chat away and try and distract them from looking.

Ten minutes later we are in Montignac and I help Philippe unload the canoes and get them lined up on the small beach below the ramp. Before we start off though we decide to have a wander around the village. Some of the clients are ready for a coffee. I have to go to the bakery to pick up bread for the picnic.

Back at the boats it’s time for the safety talk. This is always a bit problematic because many of the clients are experienced paddlers and because the river is so soporific it provides almost no dangers. Even so I step in and remind them of the procedures for falling out, for avoiding strainers (trees trapped in the river) and for preventing your boat getting pinned on rocks. I remind them too of the essential paddle strokes and who is responsible for what in a tandem canoe. Two people in a canoe always provides scope for tensions and I’m hoping that we don’t get too much bickering on the first day as people get used to paddling together.

In the past I remember having to separate only a a few couples because they were both incompetent. All in all people generally get on. Besides some people like to bicker.

At the waters edge I’m the one to get my feet wet as I hold the canoes steady as people get in and I push them off with instructions to hang about whilst everyone gets in the water. You have to laugh at the number of clients who will avoid at all costs getting their feet wet. How can you go on a canoeing holiday and not expect to get your feet wet is beyond me. Even if they have speciality canoeing shoes they don’t want to get them wet. If I’m in the mood I’ll get them wet for them. Not today though. Not the first day. May be later when I’ve had time to figure out how they’ll take it.

Finally I’m the last to get into my boat and we are all in the water. I’m paddling solo. So is Mitch. He’s specifically requested his own boat as usually, if we have an odd number of guests, I would paddle with them. Not this time though. It’s better really as I can then concentrate on guiding and generally either lead the way if I ascertain that’s what the group wants or linger back and get in the sweep position behind everyone else. Either way works and in any case usually I flit between the two.

To start with I get everyone to get close together and raft up. That is, all the canoes are lined up alongside one another and being held together by holding each others gunnels. Gunnels I said! I explain that we don’t have to hang close together, but that if you go out in front you are on your own and have to make your own decisions about which part of the river to follow. The river is quite low so if you make a wrong decision you might run aground and have to walk the canoe a bit. You’ll get your feet wet then. If you want, I say, we can play follow the leader as we progress down the river. In any case if you get too far ahead and haven’t seen anyone for a while it might be an idea to wait and let the rest catch up. Nobody wants to miss the lunch stop.

Just before I let the raft break up I mention some of the animals and birds we are likely to see. Kingfishers, Wagtails, Dippers and Herons as well as the ubiquitous Mallard Ducks. We’ll see other woodland birds and perhaps some raptors too. As for mammals I point out that we’ll be lucky to see anything at all but to look out for Coypu (Nutria), which was introduced from South America, and the Otter. I’ve seen a Mink before and sometimes you see Red Squirrels in the trees on the river bank. I’ve also seem Martens and on one memorable occasion a Fox trotting down the bank in parallel to me. I point out that it’s quite unusual to see these as the noise we make will make them hide long before we approach. We will also see plenty of damselflies and dragonflies along the way and butterflies will cross our path. We will probably hear frogs but not see them. I mention that I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the wildlife and also any about the wild-flowers and trees we will see. I point out that we have reference books in the van to check any ideas and to look up anything we are unsure of. And then we are off swinging into the current and trying to avoid being swept under the overhanging trees on one bank where the current seems to be taking us.

It’s a beautiful day. It’s quiet. No-one else is on the river. Not even a fisherman. We start to see some of the birds I was mentioning. The Wagtails are most common and easy to spot with the characteristic undulating flight they have. When on the ground they also have the the little wag dance as they flick their tails. Usually we see the Grey Wagtails, which are disconcertingly yellow. They have a grey head though and the Yellow Wagtails have yellow heads. The Pied Wagtails we sometimes see are black and white as you would expect.

Kingfishers are about too, though they are normally only seen by the canoe at the front of our flotilla. They are easily disturbed and fly off in fast straight flights about a foot off the water. They can be hard to see except when the metallic blue colour gets caught in the sunlight. We push them down the river, until finally, they can get back upstream by cutting a bend or flying over our heads. It’s only then that we get a glimpse of the orange-red chest.

When the river speeds up a little over quick riffles we catch sight of the Dippers. A small black bird with a white chest. They have a bobbing action when on the ground and also a straight and direct flight. these birds are rumoured to feed by dipping underwater looking for insect nymphs. I haven’t seen this though.

From time to time we disturb a Grey Heron who we also push downstream. They lazily fly a few yards before getting disturbed again. They never fly far and though they are usually silent after being moved on a few times they have a good croak and a moan. They too will use a bend in the river to get back to their territory although sometimes they will roost high up in the trees and wait for us to pass. For a large bird they are strangely difficult to get near. Usually they are seen in singles but in the breeding season they come together in Heronries and one time, on another river, I saw seventeen all at once turning slowly on a thermal above a cliff.

The Vezere river is easy to paddle, it’s chocolate coloured water taking us slowly downstream. From time to time we cross sides to take the deeper water running on the outside of the bend. Novices will often try and cut the corner and then be surprised by running aground as the stream runs shallow.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Château de Losse on the Vezere river

The Château de Losse on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

A few  minutes later we paddled around a bend to come across our first Château. This is the Château de Losse, but, first in front of it we come to the remains on some old locks. On one side of the river the lock gates remain intact, though the wooden gates have long gone, and on the other side the remains of a broken wall is all that is left of the dam that blocked the river. In former times the river was the means of transport for goods downstream to Bordeaux and the coast. Perhaps wine was being taken down. I’ve been unable to find any information about these locks. Three of them are evident between Montignac and St. Leon-sur-Vezere. I imagine they were built during the heyday of canal building in the 1750’s as the major canal systems in Great Britain and France were.  The locks on the Lot river date from the 1770‘s. They are not insubstantial and must have been built to a high standard to have lasted this long. I can only suppose that they were built to control the level of the river for transport and that, at that time, the roads were impractical.

The three locks here are built fairly close to three Châteaux too so I’m wondering whether tolls were charged by the local land-owners for boats to pass. I have no idea what type of boats they were either. I’m assuming they would have been of a very shallow draft and probably poled downstream. Perhaps they were pulled by draught horses, although there is not much evidence of a canal path these days.

The first thing to notice about the Château is the way it is built right on the edge of the river. It seems to hang over and in fact a curtain of long ivy conceals a overhang into which we paddle. Inside the sunlight gleams green through the ivy and the caustic light glistens on the roof of the overhang. It’s a good place to rest awhile and I’ve used it before in the past to shelter from rain. Not today though. In fact it’s cool under here. It looks like you could disembark here and make an entrance into the castle. But in fact you can’t. The Château is open to the public but they have made no provision for visitors arriving from the river. A pity.

Pulling out from underneath the ivy curtain we spin around to get a better look at the Château. Research has told me that the Losse family came here from Flanders in the 11th  Century and built a stronghold here. In 1576 a Renaissance Hall was built, by Jean II Marquess of Losse, inside the medieval fortress and nothing much has changed since. The religious wars at the time meant that he improved the defences of the curtain walls and barbican. Over the entrance you can read the inscription “Man does as he may, Fortune as she will”.

And so the river swings on as we pass underneath the bridge at Thonac and catch a glimpse of the Church of St. Pierre with it’s strange open belfry.

Later we come across another lock. This is the best preserved and the easiest to access so we swing across the river and paddle into the old lock gate from the down stream end. There is just enough room to turn around. We examine the brick work and can see the slots where the gates fitted and the grooves where the hinges sat.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Château de Belcayre on the Vezere river

The Château de Belcayre on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

In another few minutes we turn another corner to come across the Château Belcayre which is also built on a small cliff overlooking the river. This château is more dramatic than that at Losse as it’s built on a jagged spur which sticks out over the river giving it a more dramatic look. It’s history is vague though. All I can find out is that it was built in the 15th Century and repaired in the 19th century. I can find no information of who owned it during what time periods. I do know that it is privately owned now. The ‘Keep Out’ signs on the lawns are testament to that.

These châteaux are stunning though and even if I’ve paddled this river many times I still like to see them. It’s hard to think of new ways to photograph them though. I think I should come back on a hike and see them from another perspective.

As we spin our canoes around for one last look at the château we must be careful not to get caught up in the overhanging trees. It’s no matter really as the river is so slow we can brush underneath the branches and get ourselves into the main stream again. After the excitement of the architecture on the river our attention goes back to the wildlife as we disturb the birds along the river bank. Before long however the river curves to the right and undercuts a cliff and starts to speed up. A little care has to be taken here not to get the canoe too close to the edges of the limestone where the river has sharpened the edges. This quick rush is soon finished however and we find ourselves at the rocky spot where we have to pull over for lunch.

I tell everyone to slow down and give each other room as I go first, jump out of the canoe and pull up onto the rocks so it doesn’t float away. Then each of the canoes comes in one at a time and I help them disembark, collect the gear they need and tie the boat to the next. Pretty soon all five boats are tied in a fanned out loop and in turn tied to a small fishing punt which is chained to the bank. We scramble up the trail to find Paul is here and has set up lunch on a picnic table.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Sergeac

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

We are at the small village of Sergeac and at the end of a tiny lane is a path down to the river and here, sitting two metres above the water, is a single picnic table set amongst a stand of White and Black Poplars. Beside us is a small stone commemorative thing which seems to be a Madonna. It think it’s supposed to mark a spring.

In any case I tell people that the village has a toilet, give them instructions to find it, and tell them lunch will be ready when they return. I pass around the chemical hand-cleaner to those that remain. When did we start using this stuff? I heard tell that its completely useless at killing germs, but people seem to be mollified by its use.

Lunch is the usual combination of French bread, cheeses and sausages with some salad vegetables thrown in. Actually we make an effort to make it look respectable and though we, Paul and I, are used to eating this kind of stuff, the clients are excited and compare it favourably to what you would expect at a picnic on the other side of the water. It’s a small thing to introduce local cheeses and some things not normally found on the dinner table at home. The wine normally goes down well too, whether we have something from down the valley, say a Bergerac, or something from the Lot: A Cahors.

A pleasant lunch makes everyone relax and get to know each other better. Remember it’s still the first day on the river. Paul has been up to see Isobel at Castel Merle. This is a pre-history shelter site on the banks of the Vezere river between here, Sergeac, and St. Leon. We’ve visited it many times and it provides an interesting introduction to the caves of the Vezere. This river is famous for having been a centre for human habitation for tens of thousands of years. We will visit other caves in the area but this local shelter gives a more intimate perspective.

Paul has said that it would be a good time to go the shelter now after lunch rather than later after we finished our paddle. We can go now, take our time, and finish off the paddle later. It’s little more than forty minutes on the river from here anyway. Everyone agrees with this and after tidying away the picnic stuff everyone, except me, bundles into the van for the five minute drive to the site. Sometimes we walk from here, but Isobel wants to fit us in now. I’m staying behind to look after the boats and mind my own business. I might have a snooze. I might take some photographs. I might have a walk into the village.

In fact I do all three. And read my book for a bit as well. They spend hours up at the shelter which gives me ages to mess around here. Sergeac is the tiniest of villages. I walk up the lane and walk the circle of tiny lanes that comprise the village. As usual the church in the village is huge. Unusually though it is open and I step into the coolness inside. It is surprisingly plain. Some of these local churches are decorated very extravagantly, but this one is on the plain side. I do wonder why the churches are so huge though. Was is a function of the size of the congregation or something to do with the largesse of the local benefactor? And so many churches. The country must have been overrun with country priests, or vicars or parsons. Not now though. These country churches are now lucky to have one priest between the six of them, and lucky to have a service more than once a month.

I’m surprised that the municipal authorities have stumped up the cash to build some public toilets here. This village is well off the tourist map. It’s almost off the map and the road that reaches here is a no-through one. Somebody has some money somewhere because Thonac, the village on the other side of the river, has also seen some improvements. All the footpaths and roads were tidied up only a year ago. A cynic would perhaps suggest that the EU is wasting money as usual.

On the other side of the village I step into the a museum built into a small house. This is the museum put together by the Grandfather of Isobel who is the 4th Generation of the family to be managing the Castel Merle shelter. It was discovered by her great-grandfather. This tiny museum has a rather dusty collection of arrow heads and flint tools. Many of them were found here, though the best examples have gone to the National Museum of Pre-History at Les Eyzies. In addition it seems that he has traded other stone tools from around the world for the sake of comparison. You really have to be into pre-history to enjoy this place. Outside is a table strewn underneath with chipped bits of flint. This is where he practices making his own stone tools: chipping away with a leather sheet in his lap.

Of more interest to me is a little alcove where he keeps a motley collection of birds nests. He has never told me how he acquired these. Whether he collected them himself or perhaps whether he collected them as an itinerant schoolboy. This is what I think. I imagine too that the little scoundrel collected birds eggs but these perhaps are a little bit too sensitive to put on show. He’s about the same age as my own father. He too collected birds eggs as a child in the 30’s. I did too in the 50’s.

Back at the boats I wander down to the river bank to see what’s going on. A few damselflies are about so I get my camera out and attach a macro lens. With a little bit of patience and care I manage to photograph both the female and male of the Western Demoiselle. They are sexually dimorphic; e.g. the sexes look different. The male is metallic blue with wings which are clear with a broad black band near the tip. The females are metallic green with golden coloured wings. Both handsome. The males seem to be more active as they fly about whilst the females seem to stay more tucked into the vegetation.

I’m dozing at the picnic table when the rabble return. They are genuinely pleased by what they have seen at the Shelter. I learn that this year Professor White, from New York University, together with his research students and other academics have dated the oldest known painted surface in Europe. It’s been dated at 37,000 years old. People, both Neanderthal people and Cro-Magnon people (us) have been living in this river valley for that long. They also enjoyed the spear throwing that Isobel shows them. Spear throwing with that bone implement which makes the flight harder and longer. I can’t remember what it’s called.

Anyway after everybody settles down I get to the boats and untie them one at a time and get them going again on the water. It’s a tricky start as the water is flowing quite fast here, but pretty soon every one is on there way. We pass the bend where Castel Merle is and can see the small stream trickling into the Vezere. We can see nothing of the site. Next up is an opportunity to paddle down the side of an island. Very often this is too shallow to do but today the narrow side of the island provides a speckled and sunlight passage through to the other side. We only disturb a few Mallards during our passage.

After that we pass the third of the old locks before coming upon our third Château of the day. This is the Château Clerans at St. Leon-sur-Vezere. Again not much information is available about it. It’s 15th and 16th Century and it’s privately owned and so cannot be visited. You can get a good view from the river as you get parallel to it but both before and after it is obscured by trees. It’s not that large, merely a single square building with two towers, one of which is strangely flattened off.
Shortly after that the village comes into view with the Weeping Willows and the picnic tables where we had lunch yesterday. A few people are here today too and a small child is throwing a stick for a white dog. We slip by the church, admire the cliffs on the other bank where we have seen children jumping before, and then pass under the Eiffel bridge.

Paul is there at the take-out to help catch the canoes and get everyone out of the water safely. Soon we are dragging the boats up the bank, putting our paddles and life-jackets away and flipping out boats over so that we can use them tomorrow without waiting for Philippe to be around. We’ll need an early start tomorrow. So what shall we do now? Everyone votes for a stroll back across the bridge to the cafe in the village for an ice-cream or a beer. The sun is shining. Everyone is in a good mood. The day has been interesting and fun. Not too much and just enough.

Half an hour later we hop into the van and drive up to the Relais. It’s again time for me and Paul to relax. But maybe a swim in the pool first. And may be another beer too.

That evening we drive back out to Sergeac to the small Auberge de Castel Merle. It’s located right above the shelter we visited earlier in the day. It’s a strange place really. A cross between a gite and a hotel, but we’ve eaten here before and usually come back once or twice a season. We come here  because they have an amazing outside terrace with tables that overlook the river from on high. In one direction you can follow the river past Sergeac itself and in the other you can see the river as it flows towards St. Leon. All around you can see the wooded valley of the Vezere. As the sun goes down it can be spectacular.

We settle down with some aperitifs: It’s time to taste the local Vin Noix or perhaps a Chataigne. These are made by flavouring red wine with walnuts and chestnuts respectively. The recipes include a dash of Eau de Vie too just to up the alcohol content a little. The menu here includes Wild Boar Stew and this is often a popular choice, but the classic Confit de Canard and Magret de Canard are available too. The confit is a duck leg slow roasted in duck fat and the magret is breast of duck, usually served quite pink. At this point on the trip we are not yet overloaded with duck. It wont be long though as duck will be available at almost every meal.

The meal goes down well with several pichets of wine and the talk turns to the plans for tomorrow. That’s easy. We will do some canoeing and we will visit some sights along the ‘Valley of Man’. We will in fact see how this river has been occupied by man for 40,000 years.

6 Day Perigord: Day 1:To the Boats

In which the cast is introduced and the scene is set.

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. I’m attempting to be self-deprecating in these stories and I really hope nobody takes offence. This entry is about arriving in Brive for the first day of the Perigord trip.

St. Leon, I was still only in St. Leon. I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling where a fan wasn’t spinning. I’m in France, not Saigon. “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.” Who was I kidding? I’m here to guide a river trip down a couple of rivers. I’m working for a canoe outfit and we have some guests over from the USA. It’s not really going to be anything like a river trip on the Mekong. Still I’m hoping it will be an adventure of some sorts.

Yesterday I left the comfort of my friends in Paris and took the slow train down to Brive. I drowsed and slept as I generally do on the train. It wasn’t a TGV and it wasn’t busy and I didn’t have to engage in any bonhomie. Outstanding. A French word came out. I imagine I shall have to get used to it. After Limoge I start to notice the landscape. After Uzerche a river appears tumbling and falling in a narrow valley. It’s the Vezere. It looks a bit fierce. Fortunately it calms down further downstream.

At Brive I was met by my colleague and co-guide Paul. Actually he’s the boss and I’m just the gopher. Forget the gopher. I’m the water-rat. Which is just as well as Paul knows all the ropes and I’m the rookie. Cripes I’m a bird too. No matter. Paul has been here a day already and has laid the foundation for the trip. We have a minibus, we have picnic gear and we have a collapsible canoe on the roof. I look suspiciously at this as it looks remarkably insubstantial. I fear that this will be my boat.

I think I’m ready for this expedition. I have canoed before, in fact I canoed only last October and it’s May now, but it’s long time since I paddled with any frequency. I barely know one end of a canoe from the other. Fortunately Paul seems confident in my ability and has assured me that the rivers are not raging torrents but really little more than quiet green streams. It’s going to be like “Wind in the Willows”.

Which is all very well but I will have other problems too. We have guests. Worse than that I am expected to look after them, to accompany them on the river, to help them learn to paddle and to tell them something of what’s going on around them. It’s not possible to brush up on one’s social skills without being sociable. I shall have to do my best and jump in the deep end. No, not the deep end.

Paul has convinced that though the guests will be from the USA they will be able to understand me. I’m English. He has also reassured me that it’s a general rule that people who are prepared to come on a canoeing holiday are quite easy-going and friendly. In any case they have paddled before and know full well about the vagaries of travel on the water. He’ll be doing all the hard work in the background and all I have to do is get them, and the canoes, from one place to the next. A small matter of paddling downstream for four or five hours. Without losing anyone.

I’m apprehensive of course. I’ve never had a job like this in my life. But would I rather be sitting at my deck looking at a computer screen or here in France profonde with the early summer sun on my back. I don’t think so. I’m ready. I’ve got the shorts and boots on. A short-sleeved shirt and a hat that’ll protect me from the sun and float on the river when I lose it. Time to meet the guests.

To accompany us on the trip we have three couples and Mitch. Mitch tells us he’s from Nevada. The couples are Erin and Ryan, Tom and Nancy, and Mary and Joseph. We just introduce ourselves to each other as we meet them off the train and bundle them and the luggage into the van. We are off. First off it’s a short forty minute drive to St. Leon in the Vezere valley and a picnic on the river bank to introduce the trip, go over the itinerary and generally break the ice.

The church at St. Leon-sur-Vezere

The church at St. Leon-sur-Vezere

Down on the riverside we choose a picnic table under a parasol and settle ourselves down. The river is sliding by beside the weeping willows. Paul and I go inside to order the food and wine. We have a selection of cheeses and cold meats and a couple of bottles of wine. The violet confit adds an unusual touch. We keep going back for more bread as we sit in the sun and chat. Everyone seems easy-going and relaxed. We watch a couple of canoes slip by and it’s clear that the river should pose no problems.

After the plates are cleared away the maps come out and Paul and I go over the trip. Everyone of course has read all about the trip on the website before booking. They’ve figured out that it suits them and the reason they aren’t doing the trip for themselves is that they want us to take the responsibility. It’s a bit tedious then to go over the trip like this. They do like to be reminded but after the first few days have been described and some places pointed out on the map it becomes obvious that the interest is failing. So we screw the map then (in fact I fold it properly) and suggest instead of driving to our hotel we could walk. Why not. A slow walk will take about an hour, although I have to point out that it is a gentle uphill all the way.

Unsurprisingly everyone is up for a walk. After all they are here for an adventure holiday and not to sit about in the van. Paul of course will have to drive the van up the hill with all the luggage. That’s his lot as I don’t drive. That’s a cunning ploy devised when I was  teenager and put off by the antics of my Dad and his ancient Morris Minor. That’s another tale.

Before we set however we’ll have a little stroll around the village, and in particular, have a peek inside the local church which is just next to us on the river. I must try not to get too complacent about these types of things. How old is it? 11th Century I say. And added to later. It seems to work for most everything around here. It’s a plain church and very simple inside. One of the ceilings has the vague smudging of an old mural recently revealed. It’s more imposing outside with the rounded end of the Romance style of architecture. The local yellow stone which ages to grey can look golden in the right light. The tall flowers planted around the base of the building relieve lines. Some scratches on the wall mark previous flood levels. One of them is chest height for me. The whole village must have been under water.

The small village is clustered together around narrow lanes. Bright flowers erupt everywhere and tiny, sometimes overgrown, gardens come into view on the corners. It’s quiet around here too. The village is set off from the main road and is not therefore cursed by through traffic. I noticed a few cyclists at the picnic spot.

Before we leave the village we wander back to the van so they can get their gear sorted out. Walking boot and cameras and things.

Our walk winds it’s way out of the village and passed a large house. The roof of the local Château can be seen, but we will get a better view from the river tomorrow. This large house however is almost a castle or château in it’s own right. Behind an iris topped wall and through a gate designed like a portcullis can be seen a square bailey, with mullion arched windows and crenellated battlements. Who lives in this house?

The Chateau at St. Leon-sur-Vezere, Dordogne, France

The Château at St. Leon-sur-Vezere

Up the walled road we pass our first Walnut Trees. These are ubiquitous around here. There are Walnut orchards everywhere as well as wild Walnut trees at every juncture. We shall get used to walnut at dinner time: in drinks, in salads and in desserts. As we continue up the road we pass a small chapel by the cemetery. The walls around the cemetery have been newly repaired and glow in that now familiar yellow. A peek over the wall reveals huge family sarcophagi with individual mementoes  on top. Next door a new extension to the cemetery has been built. It is ominously huge. Unless the plague revisits this part of the world it should last for centuries.

The trail then crosses the main road and starts to climb up a rocky track. It’s overgrown with familiar hedgerow shrubs: Blackthorn and Hawthorn, Wild Roses and Box. On either side a crumbled dry-stone wall is covered in moss. These walls remind us that these hills were formerly used for sheep grazing until it became uneconomic in the 1950’s. I’ve been told that dry-stone walls can last up to 200 years without attention and I’m guessing these were built sometime in the mid 19c. The houses that can be glimpsed either side of the trail reveal a more modern use for the land. They seem to be summer homes. One has a small swimming pool.

At the top of the climb the trail breaks out onto a small lane and we turn left to follow the road past open meadows. They are overgrown now but will be scythed down in a matter of weeks to be turned into hay. For now though they are glowing with wild flowers and the buzzing of bees. The next junction sees us turn off the lane and onto a farm track with hedges either side. Now we have brambles and Traveller’s Joy beside us and we disturb several types of butterfly as we pass: some Blues, some Marbled Whites and some elusive Fritillaries lead the way.

As we climb towards the farm buildings ahead of us we can turn to the right and see the village of St. Leon, it’s church and its château below us in the distance. We can see how the valley curves, but the river remains invisible. On reaching the farmhouse and the top of our climb we catch our breath. The farm looks tired an unused. No-one is about. May be it’s the time of day. However as the trail levels out we can see that a vegetable allotment has been carved into one of the fields. Someone must live here.

For the final stretch the trail plunges into a wood and suddenly the path becomes very damp. We keep to the edge of the path but sometime resort to walking in the wood to avoid the yellow sticky mud. I notice that many of the trees are Sweet Chestnuts. The trees have been coppiced in the past but the wood is long overdue a cut. Further on the trail sides are covered in bracken and it’s about here that I have to look carefully for the side track that will take us to the Relais. It’s difficult to locate and when I do I have to go ahead and beat the bracken down. At one time the Relais was used mainly by travellers along the long-distance trail. These days the clientele more often arrive by car. It’s no wonder the trail is overgrown.

Just before we arrive the trail turns along a bank and gives us another view into the valley. And then we arrive. Paul is here and has been busy unloading the luggage. The rooms are allocated, the fridge with the cold drinks is pointed out, everyone can see that the place has a swimming pool and we agree on a rendezvous time to leave for dinner. Paul and I can now enjoy some downtime.

Lying on the beds in our shared room we chat about the trip ahead. Not too deeply though as we’ll get through by dealing with each day at a time and just making sure that we stay one day ahead of the game. In fact we just took a nap.

At seven o’clock we roused ourselves to take our guest to dinner in the village. I asked if anyone wanted to walk down. They did. So we did. This time walking down the lane instead of taking the trail. It’s an easy stroll. Halfway down Paul passed with the rest of the group. We are having dinner at the Old Post Office and take a table outside on the road. The menu of course causes a few wrangles but once we have explained that almost every dish is duck everyone settles down. We calm a potential furore about choosing the wine by pointing out that they have pichets on the wine list. That’s easy. We explain that we are paying for the standard menu, but you can have what you like and pay the difference. For drinks and the like Paul and I will run a tab and bill everyone from time to time.

Lubricated by sufficient alcohol the first evening and dinner seems to go well. People are talking and smiling. We have a few questions about what we are doing tomorrow but it seems nobody is being very picky and asking those impossible to answer questions.

I restrain myself about being obtuse. If someone asks how long is the paddle it’s very tempting to quip back and say it depends how fast they paddle or it depends on how fast the river is. When I get to know these people later than I can start being cheeky. For now I just stick with averages and say that we are under no pressure to race down the river. On the contrary we are here to enjoy it.

By the time dinner is done it is knocking on 10 o’clock in the evening. It’s time to drive back up the hill to the Relais. Fortunately no-one wants to walk. It’s my duty to accompany anyone who does and so I’m relieved that we are all jumping back in the van. Pretty soon we are back in our room. Lights out. Time for Paul to knock around all night and claim not to be able to sleep. He dreams that he is awake.

In fact we lie awake for hours musing on the trip. We have to turn the trip around to become something less prosaic than a simple meander down some of Frances calmest and greenest rivers. We have to liken it to Scott. But then we’d have to die. So then we come up with Shackleton. Frozen canoes and open sea voyage beckon. But then, the genius, we come up with Apocalypse Now. Our rivers will become the Mekong. We’ll forget the fact that we are supposed to go upstream. Who would do that in a canoe? What will be our Cambodia. What is our mission. Who will be Willard and who Kurtz. We begin to riff on this as the night lengthens. It’s possible we fall asleep and then get the riff going again in the early morning when neither of us can sleep.

Remarkably one of the guys on the trip has a Martin Sheen look about him: Mitch is our man. We haven’t found out much about him yet. He has told us his days as a motocross rider and how his legs are all smashed up. He has a military look too. Cropped hair and a look that says he might kill you. May be not, he seems like a nice bloke.

Now all we need is to fill out the rest of the crew. And we need some quotes. We spend sometime racking our heads to remember lines from the film.

“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.”

So we have our setting. We have a crew, of sorts, and we have our mission. What we don’t have is sleep. What we need is sleep. I sleep. Paul doesn’t. Probably because I’m snoring.

“I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the Perigord. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Neanderthal man squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.

Welcome

The Dordogne river from Beynac Castle

The Dordogne river from Beynac Castle

Welcome to the Green River Canoes blog. We are a company offering Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips in the south of France. Our main website is here. We are currently offering a 6 Day Trip in the Perigord region on the Vezere and Dordogne rivers and a 5 Day Trip in the Lot region on the Cele river. A combination 12 Day, 3 Rivers trip is also available.

Bespoke/Custom Trips can be arranged if required. Here are some ideas.

All our holidays comprise of mostly canoeing with some (often optional)  hiking. The itinerary is planned but is flexible enough to be changed on the day if required. These are detailed here for the Perigord trip and here for the Lot Trip.

All our holidays are guided. Our guests will be accompanied on the river and trail by an experienced guide who knows the area and rivers well. Our other guide will accompany us in the background by driving our vehicle between lodgings. When necessary this vehicle will be transferring our luggage, rendezvousing with us for lunch and generally being available as and when needed.

All the accommodation on our trips is in small local Hotels, Chambre D’Hotes or B&Bs, which are detailed here for the Perigord trip and here for the Lot trip.

All our holiday prices include transfers, canoe hire, accommodation and meals (except one).

All trips have a maximum size of 9 people. That is 7 guests and 2 guides.

On all our trips we will enjoy the natural history and local history of the region and see many of the fabulous sites along the way. Needless to say we will also enjoy the local wines and regional cuisine.

We take trips from late spring, through summer (avoiding August) until the autumn and fall. When to go? These books and maps will also help you enjoy the trip.

More detailed questions are answered here.

If you have any other questions we would be delighted to hear from you. All the details are on the panel to the right, where you can also sign-up for our quarterly Newsletter.

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

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