Tag Archives: St. Leon-sur-Vezere

Autumn 2016 Newsletter

NewLogLemonBalmCanoe100x100

Hand-crafted and Fully Guided Canoe Trips that combine the pleasures of paddling down tranquil rivers with an insight into the history and natural history of the region whilst we enjoy the local cuisine and stay in small Inns and B&Bs as we make our way gently downstream in beautiful & dramatic countryside.

A Green River Canoes Poster: http://goo.gl/GRZBSF © Steven R House 2014

Autumn Canoeing

On the Vézère, the Dordogne and the Célé rivers in France

You still have time to enjoy a late holiday break to the South of France with us. September & October are great months for paddling, and of course these are wonderful places to canoe in the Autumn.

It is still warm: very often it is still warm enough to swim in the rivers. We have the  7 Days in the Perigord and the 6 Days on the Cele trip. Or you can push both trips together for our 12 Days 3 Rivers tour. The rivers are quiet: we are often the only people on the river, and of course the châteaux and castles and restaurants and wines are as fabulous as ever.

The tours include visiting the 25,000 year old cave paintings in these regions at Lascaux & Pech Merle, and we can fit in visits to other caves if we wish: Castel Merle, Rouffignac and Font de Gaume for example.

The number of châteaux we canoe past is almost too numerous to mention: the Losse, Belcayre and Clérans on the Vézère, the castles at Montfort, Castelnaud and Beynac as well as the châteaux of Marqueyssac, Fayrac and Milandes on the Dordogne and also the Devil’s Castle and the Chateau Cabrerets on the Célé.

We also visit and stay in numerous pretty villages – Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – which include Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Beynac-et-Cazenac, La Roque-Gageac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. With a little bit of effort we can also visit Domme, Cardaillac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly. These are all tiny country villages in stunning settings. We will also visit the regional town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, preferably on market day.

But, of course, rivers are our main focus and the scenery and wildlife are just as stunning in this season and we will have the bonus of autumn colours.

Célé, Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips

Admiring the cliffs on the Célé river, Lot France

6 Day Célé Tour

A 5 Night, 6 Day tour in which  we spend three days paddling the Célé river and a day hiking a section of the Way of St. James. We also visit the cave paintings at Pech Merle. An extra day can be added if we wish to paddle on the Lot river for a day or we can swap the hike day for a paddle day.

On this tour we will stay in a farmhouse above the Célé for the whole tour. This will save us packing & moving on every night. Every day is but a short drive to the river. Not even 20 minutes drive. Our host Richard & Helen will prepare lovely home-made meals for us and we will enjoy the conviviality of their home.

We will rendezvous with our canoes on the first day and then keep them for the three days it will take us to paddle down to the confluence of the Lot river. We will picnic along the way for lunch and stop at the pretty villages along the route. We will also have ample time for little walks & hikes here & there.

Full tour details are here. The brochure is here.

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

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

7 Day Perigord Tour

A 6 Night, 7 Day tour in which we canoe down the Vézère & Dordogne rivers with visits to caves to see 25,000 year-old paintings, troglodyte dwellings along the river, huge castles and beautiful chateaux.

On this tour we spend two days paddling down the Vézère river and 3 days paddling down the Dordogne river.

The Vézère valley is famous for being the ‘valley of man’. Almost 200 sites of Neanderthal and CroMagnon antiquity have been found here. We will see and explore some of them, including the renowned Painted Caves at Lascaux. But the Vézère is also beautiful for other reasons, including fabulous chateaux, stunning scenery and wildlife.

The Dordogne river is  famous for its more recent history, the 11th and 12th Century for example, which are represented by the huge castles we shall pass, which are reminders of the 100 Years War between France & England. We shall paddle past these as well as numerous smaller chateaux  built for more peaceful times. We shall have plenty of time for visiting some of these as well as the stunning villages along the way.

Full tour details are here. The brochure is here.

Beynac on the Dordogne river, France

Beynac on the Dordogne river, France

12 Day 3 Rivers Tour

An 11 Night, 12 Day tour in which we canoe down the Vézère, the Célé & Dordogne rivers by combining the 6 and 7 Day tours above.

Full tour details are here. The brochure is here.

GRC_2015NewsletterFooter

Guest Blog: Day 2: Vézère: Chateaux and Locks

On the Vézère with Chateaux and Locks

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

a1 Our inn

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

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

c20 Finally - what we came here to do!!

Getting ready at Montignac on the Vézère river

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

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

c24 Cheryl paddles with Steve

Cheryl paddles with Steve

d30 Steve & I approach a small waterfall

Steve & I approach a small waterfall

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

 

e41 One last look

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

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

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

g65 Toasting with pastis!

Toasting with pastis!

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

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

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

Guest Blog: Day 1: Arrival in the Perigord

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

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

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

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

b11 Twisted bed frames and ovens

Twisted bed frames and ovens at Oradour-sur-Glane

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

c24...with Annie and Marlee on it!

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

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

d30 View from my room to the pool

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

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

d32 We are hungry!

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

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

d39 Another view of the river

A view of the Vézère river from the Château de Losse

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

Green River Canoes Back Book Cover

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

Canoeing the Vezere & Dordogne in October 2014 (Pt 1)

House_20141014_D_000012.jpg

Another season, another trip. This time it is late in the Autumn of 2014, the time of the Fall. We had expected it to be cool on the river with misty mornings and a chill in the air first thing. As it turned out we had days of 30°C, beautiful blue skies and at times it was warm enough for us to swim in the river as if it were June or July.


House_20141014_D_000008.jpg


Steve & I decided to make the long trip down to Bordeaux in one long fell swoop. So we were up at 5am to take an early ferry crossing and hit the road. To tell you the truth I can’t remember much about it. Many hours later though we finally ended up in Bordeaux where we were to pick up our guests the next morning. After some wandering around we found ourselves somewhere to stay in a rather grand if faded Chateau Fontbelleau trapped amongst a grim industrial estate. We can however thoroughly recommend it.


House_20141014_D_000004.jpg


First thing in the morning we drove into the city to pick up our guests from the Grand Hotel in Bordeaux. We got out of town as soon as possible and started the drive up the Dordogne valley to St. Leon-sur-Vezere.


House_20141014_D_000032.jpg


It only takes a couple of hours. We stopped for a panoramic view over the Vezere valley before arriving at the Relais de Cote Jor for our two night stay. We then dropped down to the village for a picnic lunch besides the river and a little walk around.


House_20141014_D_000026.jpg


Whilst our guest relaxed back at the hotel Steve and I took a short drive down to Les Eyzies to pick up our other guest who was arriving by train from Paris.


House_20141014_D_000038.jpg


In the evening we wandered back down to the village for dinner at the Old Post Office.


House_20141015_D_000038.jpg


Bright and early the next day we began the first of our two days paddling down the Vezere river. This first day was from Montignac back down to our village of St. Leon.


House_20141015_D_000050.jpg


It was a stunningly beautiful day, very warm but with that smell of autumn in the air. We glided past the pretty Chateaux of Losse and Belcayre before arriving at the village of Sergeac for a picnic lunch.


House_20141015_D_000059.jpg


After lunch we continued downstream past the ruined locks and the last of the days Chateaux at St. Leon itself.House_20141015_D_000079.jpg

House_20141015_D_000085.jpg

In the afternoon we decided to visit the Chateau Commarque which is a beautiful ruin set in the hidden woods between the Vezere and the Dordogne rivers. It took us some time to find it as the roads wind about the hills and the signposts are few and far between.

House_20141015_D_000127.jpg

House_20141015_D_000117.jpg

House_20141015_D_000140.jpg

House_20141015_D_000144.jpg

House_20141015_D_000153.jpg

We spent a very pleasant hour or two wandering over the ruins before returning to St. Leon. In the evening we drove to Montignac and found ourselves a very pleasant Spanish restaurant for dinner.



A Trip to the Perigord in September 2014 (Part 1)

House_20140904_D_000067.jpg

In early September I set out from the Eurostar station at Ashford for Paris where I visited my friends for a couple of days before taking the long train journey from the Austerlitz station in Paris to Les Eyzies in the deepest Perigord. It takes about 8 hours in all with changes at Limoges and Périgueux, but when you arrive at the tiny station of Les Eyzies you know you are far away from all the cares of city-life.


This trip is going to be very different from our regular trips. Their are just the two of us. I Met Bob on the train coming down for the first time and we are going to spend the next week sharing a canoe and a room as we paddle the Vezere and the Dordogne. It’s going to be fun as we will not have the support of a van or minibus to help us get around. Just us, the river and the railway. It turns out that Bob is a professor of Japanese History so I may learn something as well.


So here we are in the small town of Les Eyzies. We have to get upstream to St. Leon so that we can canoe back down here! But first we’ll walk into town find the hotel we will be staying in three days hence and leave some luggage. We’ll also grab some lunch.


We sit in the sunshine have a beer and a salad. It’s very warm. The luggage is organised and a taxi has arrived. A short 30 minute drive up the valley brings us to the Relais de Cote de Jor. Our host, Roland, is not about. He’s left a message apologising for not being able to pick us up from the station. No worries. We throw our stuff in the room and decide to go for a walk.


House_20140903_D_000001


It’s a nice easy stroll along the top of the valley to the viewpoint at Cote de Jor. We look down on the Vezere river as it snakes through the valley. This will be our companion for the next couple of days.


House_20140904_D_000003


After a swim in the pool and a laze about we walk down the trail to the village of St. Leon-sur-Vezere and have dinner in the Old Post Office restaurant. It was a long day, with an early start and a marathon rail journey. But we are here now and the two of us seem to be getting on just fine. We walk back up the lane to the Relais.


In the morning we have a walk before breakfast and then later stroll down the hill back to the village to meet Philippe and Virginnie at Apa canoes. After getting organised they run us upstream to Montignac where we will begin our first day on the river. We do of course have a look around the small town first and buy a baguette for our lunch.


House_20140904_D_000010


So off we go on our little canoeing adventure. I take the stern first but we’ll swap around over the next few days. These rivers are not exactly challenging in a technical sense. It’s warm, the sun is shining and we have plenty to look at as we glide gently downstream.


House_20140904_D_000011


After an hour or so we come to the Chateau du Losse which we enjoy as we meander past, checking out the ruins of the old lock gates as we approach. The Chateau is open to the public but sadly it has no entrance designed for those arriving by river and the bank is too steep for us to consider breaching the walls.


House_20140904_D_000019.jpg


I’ve been in the castle before but Bob suggests he would like to visit so I propose we paddle down to the village of Thonac where we can leave our canoes and walk back to the Chateau. It’s inconvenient but it is actually not that far – a mere 1/2 mile.


House_20140904_D_000030.jpg


We spend a very pleasant couple of hours exploring the Chateau, inside and out. We even take the guided tour, even though it is mostly in French. No matter it’s fairly easy to get the gist of it.


House_20140904_D_000033.jpg


House_20140904_D_000057.jpg


House_20140904_D_000061.jpg


Afterwards we stroll through the fields back to where we had left the canoes and continue our journey on the Vezere. Before very long we come to another grand house: the Chateau du Belcayre. It looks astounding built on the pinnacle of rock overlooking the river.

House_20140904_D_000070.jpg


We spin around on the river and take plenty of photographs as we pass as the sky and clouds have conspired to give us a wonderful radial shape behind the castle. The flowing weeds in front of the Chateau add to the charm of the scene.

House_20140904_D_000074.jpg


The next stop is the tiny village of Sergeac where we will stop for our picnic lunch. We have the French bread with raw vegetables and fruit, with cheeses and some charcuterie. Simple. Afterwards we take a small walk around the place.


Then it’s back on the river for the last leg of the journey to St. Leon. We pass the last of the old lock gates and meander around a couple of small islands before gliding past the last Chateau of the day in the village itself.


House_20140904_D_000076.jpg


A few minutes later we are back at the canoe outfitters and getting ourselves together after a fine first day on the river. We have plenty of time for a stroll around the village and a beer as well before taking a slow hike up the hill back to the hotel.


In the evening we again walk down to the village only to find that it is carnival night. A small street market is set out selling all kinds of foods and there will be music and dancing later. This puts a smile on our face. We sit down for dinner whilst we watch the revelry but then have to be rushed inside as a brief storm brings rain. But it is soon gone and everyone drifts outside again. A fine end to a great first day.


To be continued …

6 Day Perigord: Day 3: Past the Rock Shelters To The Cave

In which we step underground to see some wall paintings.

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 third day of the Perigord trip, where we go canoe past some famous landmarks and then visit an underground cave with ancient wall paintings.

The routine for the morning is much the same as yesterday. It will be much the same everyday! Today however we have to re-load the van with our luggage as we will be moving downstream to stay in Les Eyzies tonight. I explain to everyone that they have to be careful to keep the stuff they need for today separate. That includes the dry-bag to take on the canoe and any extra clothes they may need during the day. We will rendezvous with Paul and the Van at lunchtime and at the end of the days paddling. Just keep what you need to hand and not packed away.

In addition we have told the guests that we need to make as early a start on the river as we can. We have an appointment at the Font de Gaume cave this afternoon and it cannot be changed or re-arranged. The cave only accepts 160 visitors a day in small groups. I’d like to be on the water by 9.30. Everyone is OK with that.

So everything is loaded, including all our picnic gear, and we say goodbye to Roland and the Relais and drive down to Philipes place by the river in St. Leon. It’s too early for him to be there but we have previously arranged that it’s OK for us to fish out our own paddles and life-jackets and use the canoes that we left here yesterday.

Paul and I get everyone in the water and have a little bit of fun by trying to teach them how to ferry across the river by paddling upstream at an angle in such a way that the stern paddler keeps the angle (and doesn’t allow the boat to spin around) whilst the bow paddler paddles just enough so that the canoe neither drifts downstream or pushes upstream. In this way the canoe glides sideways across the river at which point you let the bow swing around to point downstream and you continue on your way on the far side of the river. This is a handy technique for crossing a river. We do it here because the left side of the river downstream from where we put in is very shallow and we need to be on the right side of the stream to get the deeper water and to avoid running aground. Everyone seems to manage the ferry fairly well and soon I’m the last on the water and I’m waving farewell to Paul and paddling off to catch everyone else up.

We are obviously the first people on the river today. This is good as it means we have every chance of seeing some wildlife. In particular we may see some mammals. Perhaps otters, or more probably nutria. They are tricky to see and you have to keep your eyes open and peer into the river banks and underneath the trees and bushes along the banks. Nutrias are seen more often; They keep swimming when spotted and seem averse to diving. Otters on the other hand will dive as soon as they know they’ve been seen. In addition nutrias have just one protuberance above the water, whilst an otter’s head can be see separately from its rear end!

After a short while the stream splits in two around an island. The river is high enough at the moment to contemplate going either side. On the left the river runs faster, but can lead you under some overhanging trees, so you’ll have to be careful to avoid them. The right side is obscured by the trees growing on the island and seems to be narrower. I like to encourage people to make their own decisions in places like this and so suggest that I’ll go left but why don’t they try the right side.

Some follow me but I’m pleased to see that  a couple are at least tying the right side. But I see that they change tack halfway down after the smaller island in front on the main island and cut through back to the left. When I’m downstream of the island I turn around in an eddy and wait for everyone to come through. I can see why they changed their mind as the right side is blocked by a fallen tree. That would have made a tricky obstacle to get past and could be dangerous. The tree has fallen since I was last here. I’ll have to try and remember in case it’s still here the next time.

The river bends around some large turns as it progresses down the valley and we have chances to look at the ferns growing in some undercuts in the cliffs. We pass the Paradise Camping ground and wave to a lone fisherman and a woman walking a dog. In a short while we come to a much larger undercut on the left where the river veers sharply right. I know that we have almost reached the famous La Roque Saint Christophe. First though we explore the undercut by going right underneath it. It’s almost a cave under there and covered in a roof of dripping vegetation. It seems to be mostly ferns, mosses and liverworts. They are incredibly green, but it’s dark under here and difficult to get a photograph, particularly as you have to keep the canoe from drifting too.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Roque St. Christophe

The under-cliffs on the Vezere river, near Roque St. Christophe, Dordogne, France

Beyond the under-cliff is a rough place for landing and dis-embarking. Roque Saint Christophe is an interesting place and it has a museum too but as usual with places of interest along the river they have made no provision for visitors arriving by canoe. I arrive first, jump out and drag my boat over the sharp rocks to a safe place. I then help the others. It’s difficult has the rocks are sharp and slippery and it gets deep very quickly. Fortunately I help everyone out of the boats with no mishaps. Perhaps someone gets stung by the Stinging Nettles which are always prevalent here. I have forgotten to remind people. Now they know what it looks like. I assure them the tickling sensation with pass in a few moments. They are reassured that we have no Poison Ivy in Europe. I have to use a rope to tie the boats together as there is no room to pull all the boats onto the rocks. It looks a bit untidy.

Clambering up the muddy trail we suddenly find ourselves at the cafe by the parking for the museum. This cheers everyone up. I tell them where to go to get to the museum and the entrance to the ledges and we agree that an hour for the visit should suffice. Almost everyone decides to have a coffee first. As usual I wont be going with them. I’ve obviously been to each of these places many times before. Actually we don’t often get to stop over at this one as if we have a earlier booking at Font de Gaume we don’t have the time. In that case we have to make do with observing it from the canoes as we pass. Today though we do and I will have a pleasant hour minding my own business and may be taking a few photographs.

But let me describe what La Roque Saint Christophe is. It’s a cliff, and in this cliff are about seven grooves cut by the river exactly like the under cliffs we’ve seen on the river today but obviously cut thousands, if not millions, of years ago when the river was running at a different level. Or the land has moved up since the time they were cut. These grooves at one time would have had extensive ledges reaching out into the air. They’ve since fallen but a substantial ledge remains on these levels nonetheless. These undercuts have been used for human habitation for at least 25,000 years. In the cliffs is the evidence of more than 100 shelters. The cliffs were used for habitation up until the Middle Ages when I presume the security provided by defending the cliffs was useful when times got tough. I expect it was easier to live down in the valley during easy times. I’ve heard rumours that the cliffs and shelters were also used during the Second World War by resistance fighters. This I think is a bit dubious. It’s a well known site and I’m sure the valley is littered with a lot more remote and hidden caves and shelters which they could have used. It’s a nice thought though.

Of course because it’s been in continuous use for so long the evidence of Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon use has long been obliterated. That’s probably why today the cliffs and shelters have been preserved and, lets be honest, modelled, to reflect how the place would have been used four or five hundred years ago. The museum reflects that. I don’t think it’s any the worse for that and I think its well worth a look around for an hour or so. They have modelled some of the medieval machinery that may have been used but I’m surprised that they have not made more use of the post holes. Their are hundreds of square holes cut into the cliffs above the ledges which were used to support wooden beams which in turn supported leathers or other materials to provide additional shelter. I think they could make more use of these but possibly they are not allowed to do so.

Here’s another description.

Steps lead up to the original entrance of the fortress which was the only entrance into the town and therefore was an integral part of the town’s defence system. The entrance is narrow and has a look out post from which rocks etc could be thrown down at invaders. It also had a strong door and a drawbridge to further prevent attack.

The next section of the cave shows clearly how the caves were used as the basis for the buildings in the town. Holes were hacked into the rock to support beams which were then used to construct ceilings and roofs. The fronts of the houses were built in the traditional half-timbered style common in medieval times. Roofs were covered in flat stones called lauze. The cave walls have evidence of holes hacked out of the rock and used as storage areas and also stone ‘hooks’ were created which had rope threaded through them to tether animals.

The visit continues through 20 clearly marked parts of the town highlighting different areas such as the cowshed, the slaughterhouse and next to it the smoke-house (for preserving the meat), the church, the forge etc.

One section is a massive long area where the rock above overhangs a 275 meter long area and this natural shelter was the main part of the town. This is the biggest natural shelter in Europe and really is extraordinary. From here you can see below two of the other terraces which were also used for buildings. At its peak the town held hundreds of houses and about a thousand people.

Further along the Roque St Christophe various machines of construction have been built as replicas of the winches, scaffolding, cranes and capstan that would have been used in medieval times for building the town. Whilst I was visiting a guide was demonstrating, with the help of a number of willing volunteers, the use of the capstan to pull heavy loads. Apparently using this 10 people could drag loads of one to two tons!

Another key sight is the ‘great staircase’. This is hewn out of the stone and is one of the largest monolithic staircases in Europe. This staircase leads to the fifth and highest terrace and evidence of medieval war machines suggests this terrace was a key part of the town’s defences. From here rocks and stones were thrown down at enemies invading from below. Next to the staircase there is a room cut out from the rock that was used by the town’s warriors for shelter. Higher up there is another smaller hollow which was a lookout point.

An hour has past now and the guests return from ledges back to the boats. I start work untying them and getting everyone back on the water. It’s irritating how difficult this is in this spot. It would be great if they built a proper dock here. Which reminds me that that the medieval city did actually have a dock on the river and a castle overlooking it to protect it. Where is that now?
So we are off spinning on the river and almost immediately I slip my canoe into a narrow gap between the cliff and a huge fallen boulder. I discovered this little passageway several years ago but it always amuses me to go around it. There is only just enough room for a canoe and you have to do a sharp turn to the right inside. sometime I disappear from view by trying to nip in here unheeded but today I’m followed through.

It’s then time to appreciate the view of La Roque Saint Christophe from the river by paddling over to the right bank. You have to do this as they have thoughtlessly allowed the trees on the left bank to grow to maturity. At one time their was a small dock here so that canoeists could get out and look at the ledges. It’s too far to walk to the museum entrance from here though and the wooden ramp down to the water is now overgrown and unusable. They could cut the trees though to give a better view.

We have to bit a bit careful now though as the river speeds up as we get to the Moustier bridge. I advise that we should take the rightmost arch and have some fun as we rock through the waves right under the bridge and then have to turn sharp to avoid a overhanging branch. The river is skipping along on this section and we swing from one side of the river to another to follow the current and avoid the shallows. In fact I encourage everyone to move over to the right on the coming stretch and we might just be able to get a glimpse of Reignac. This is another medieval cliff dwelling in the Vezere valley. As usual their is no provision for stopping our canoes at a convenient access point and, as usual again, you can’t really see much because of the trees along the river bank. You can just get a glimpse. Which I suppose does make it more enticing. However I have never once visited this site. When you pass it on the road it looks a bit touristy and I think they’ve dressed it up to appear more than it is.

I’m probably wrong though as this is what wiki has to say.

Maison Forte de Reignac is perched above the Vezere river valley hugging the rock face. In an area well-known for prehistoric cave art, standsone of the most distinctive castles in France.
In French, this type of castle is known as a Chateau falaise, or cliff castle. The 14th-century Maison Forte de Reignac was constructed in a grotto that holds evidence of more than 20,000 years of human habitation. Additional construction occurred in the 16th century, but little has changed since then. Originally built as a secure defensible fortification from which the lord of the manor could watch over his property and protect it from raiders, the castle now sits quietly above the river valley offering grand views and a unique experience.

As one approaches the castle, it appears to be no bigger than a large house set in front of the cliff. Upon entering, it becomes apparent there is more to the castle than one would imagine. Underground vaults hold large rooms with period furniture. The great room contains a large fireplace and would be the place to entertain guests. The bedrooms of the lord and the lady are filled with furniture, tapestries, and paintings of the type that would have adorned these rooms over the centuries. The castle also has a chapel, a large armoury with typical weapons and armour on display, and it even has a small underground prison cell.

A stairway tucked deep inside the cliff provides access to more rooms perched high up on the cliff. This level offers a great view of the valley and is also home to the alchemist’s roost. Up here, the alchemist could conduct experiments away from the daily activities in the rooms below. This lofty perch also offered sentries a place to scan the countryside for danger and castle guards an excellent position from which to defend the castle.

A small museum in the castle displays prehistoric artefacts that were collected on the property over the years. A curio cabinet displays a hodgepodge of curiosities collected by explorers during the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the curiosities are a large stuffed bear and alligator, an ostrich egg, a variety of preserved fish, and many objects that these explorers would have found exotic.

Tucked into a side room on the ground floor is a fascinating but macabre exhibit that has recently been installed. This room contains instruments of torture that have been used by mankind throughout the centuries. The aim of this exhibit is to make the public aware of the horrible methods of torture that people have devised and the cruelties that people have carried out. It aims to remind us that these cruelties are still being carried out in parts of the world today.

From the river it does look impressive. I should pay a visit one day.

In a little while the Madeleine bridge is reached and just beyond it is the Tursac rest-area where we will have our lunch. The approach to the access ramp is a bit tricky as the river is flowing fast on the right and is shallow on the left which is the side we want to be, The trick is to go down the right and then swing in by doing a ferry to get to the left side. The difficulty is attempting to do this without being swept downstream. I go first in an attempt to show how it should be done and also so that I can beach my boat and then be prepared to catch anyone who is in danger of being swept past. Today everybody makes the turn with no problems and I just have to help some get out the canoes and then slide the boats so they are tidy. I don’t like to leave the ramp blocked just in case anyone else comes down the river and wants to use the same picnic spot.
This picnic spot is quite new anyway. It’s been extensively landscaped and fitted with several huge picnic tables and a toilet block is here too. It’s not a good sign though that the toilets are not looked after and in their current state are unusable. A pee in the bushes it is then.

Paul is already here and has done most of the work in setting up the picnic. All we have to do is scrub our hands with that chemical stuff and pour the wine and everyone can get started. the mood is good, the sun is shining and we are in good time to make our rendezvous in Les Eyzies. Paul has shot down to the Font de Gaume office and picked up our tickets already. We are all set. But we can relax now and tuck into the usual repartee of cheese and sausage and bread and crudites and fruit. And more wine.

So it’s back to the boats and onto the next thing. The launch is as tricky as the arrival but everyone gets away. It’s not possible to see from the river but we are on a huge meander. If we weren’t facing cliffs overgrown with a forest we could clamber over here, drag the boats a hundred yards, Fitzcarraldo style, and save ourselves a hours paddling. But who would want to do that?

After passing some more cliffs, with an undercut as usual we spin the boats around to glimpse some farm buildings built on top of the cliff. Unsurprisingly underneath it we can see some more shelters. Or are they? They seem to be man-made holes cut into the cliffs and the square-cut holes for poles are also apparent. Some of them even have old bits of wood still attached. But the caves don’t seem to have any means of access. They are just poised in the middle of the cliff. It doesn’t matter we spin the boats around and drift downstream.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Vezere river at Madeleine

The Chapel at Madeleine on the Vezere river

After a further couple of bends we come to something more substantial. A Chapel hugging the cliff. In fact if you look closer you can also see the remains of a castle on the cliff above it and the ubiquitous cliff shelters spread along the cliff either side. This is the famous site of La Madeleine.

First the rock shelters:

At the end of 1863, Edouard Lartet, a palaeontologist, and his friend and benefactor Henry Christy discovered the shelter of La Madeleine by the side of the Vézère River. They were returning from investigating Le Moustier a few kilometres away, and noticed a large shelter on the right bank of the river. At this time there was no bridge, and they stopped a passing boat for assistance in crossing the river. A search was carried out with shovels and spades, and they began to realise the importance of the site. Each level revealed the presence of mankind: burins, flint blades, spear points. Numerous unrecognised objects turned up, made from unknown bones: harpoons, spears, needles, and numerous artefacts made from reindeer antlers. They decided to leave a serious investigation until spring.

The next spring, they continued their research. In May 1864 workers discovered five fragments of an ivory plate, which once reassembled, revealed an exceptional engraving of a mammoth. The accuracy of the engraving confirmed without doubt that the artist had observed the living creature and reproduced it in accurate detail: woolly coat, tusks, and hump were all faithfully recorded. The rear end of the animal was also clearly defined.

In 1868 Gabriel de Martillet established a new timescale for the prehistoric centuries, and La Madelaine became the type site for “Magdalenian” times.

The site was also studied by Paul Girod and Elie Massenet, as well as numerous amateur investigators. Denis Peyrony restarted the research in 1911, and refined knowledge of the site. In 1926 the skeleton of a three year old child was discovered, with exquisite shell jewellery, dating from the end of the Magdalenian period.

Secondly the castle: I can find no information about this. I’ve heard claims that the Romans built a castle here and that further constructions were made in the Middle Ages. Nothing else.

Thirdly, the Chapel: Again I can find no reliable information but I’ve been told that the chapel was built in the 11thC and that King Richard the First of England (Richard the Lionheart) came to this chapel on his way to the crusades for a blessing. This seems unlikely he lived further south in France and in fact spent a mere seven months of his ten year reign in England. He didn’t even speak English, but was fluent in Langue d’Oil and Langue d’Oc. It’s a nice thought though.

After spending some time looking at the Chapel here and taking some photographs we spin away and continue downstream. Shortly afterwards we have to go either side of an island, once again choosing the faster side or the hidden side. The island is small at the moment but on some trips the gravel bar in front of it is quite large. In the old days this is where we used to have lunch. We’d pull over and use three boats to form a picnic table. Two canoes would be placed parallel to on another another and then the third canoe would be placed on top, upside down and at right angles. With a table-cloth thrown on top it works quite well. As long as it’s level. And no-one leans on it. From time to time we had to move a move a herd of cows off the island first as in the heat of summer they come down from the field opposite to cool off. They moan too when they are moved.

It’s been a long day on the river now and the pressure is rising as we have to make our rendezvous in Les Eyzies. This last hour can be tiring, especially on a hot afternoon. The next way marker is the railway bridge. I think this line comes down from Perigeaux to Les Eyzies. You don’t see trains very often. I did catch a train from Les Eyzies to Cahors once when our van was two small for all of us (for a long ride anyway). I had to change somewhere and wait for an hour or so. I wish I could remember where that was as I spent the time wandering around a pleasant market. At one time I heard that services had been stopped on the week-end, but they have now been restored and I’ve seem some new rolling-stock on the line too.

Soon after that the river swings a long left-hand corner. I smooch over to the left bank to see if I can spot any horses in the paddock there. Sometimes they are gathered together under the trees to keep cool. The interesting thing about these horse is that some of them are spotted. It’s not often you see spotted horses and they remind me of the painted horses in the caves at Peche Merle. We’ll see those next week when we are down on the Cele River. Which reminds me why are spotted horses called painted horses? And Pinto? And another thing why don’t horses have ordinary colours? A horse can’t be brown, or white or black? A mystery.

But then as we swing around this corner we can see huge cliffs above us on the right hand side. Once again you can see many grooves cut into the cliffs and much evidence of shelter living. You can see too that not so many years ago you could visit these levels but the stairways are rusting now and blocked off with barbed-wire. I imagine the cliffs have become unsafe and so we’ll just have to content ourselves with looking at them.

Before long we are passing another couple of islands and then coming under the road bridge at the edge of town, passing the Trois Drapeaux cafe on the right and then swinging into the ramp where we are to disembark. Paul is here to help get everyone out of the boats and then to drag the boats up onto the grassy bank and leave them in a tidy pile for Philippe to collect later. We get ourselves together and load our stuff in the van before changing out of wet shoes and damp shorts into something warmer that we shall need for the cave. We’ve just got time to use the toilets and have a quick beer at the cafe.

And so it is that we roll up at Font de Gaume. Surprisingly it’s just a green shack besides the road. Inside you have a small shop selling books and other paraphernalia depicting the cave paintings. It doesn’t seem much for a world renowned site. Through the shop a concrete path leads up the side of the hill until ten minutes later you arrive at the cave gates. No cameras and no bags are allowed inside. Woe betide anyone who rubs against the walls.

Here is a description.

The paintings were discovered by Denis Peyrony, a local schoolmaster, on 12 September 1901. The cave had been known to the general public before this, but the significance of the paintings had not been recognised. Four days previously Peyrony had visited the cave at Les Combarelles, a short distance away, with the archaeologist Henri Breuil, where he saw its prehistoric engravings. The paintings in the cave at Font-de-Gaume were the first to be discovered in the Périgord province.

Prehistoric people living in the Dordogne Valley first settled in the mouth of Font-de-Gaume around 25,000 BC. The cave mouth was inhabited at least sporadically for the next several thousand years. However, after the original prehistoric inhabitants left, the cave was forgotten until the nineteenth century when local people again began to visit the cave. The paintings date from around 17000 BC, during the Magdalénien period. Many of the cave’s paintings have been discovered in recent decades. The cave’s most famous painting, a frieze of five bison was discovered accidentally in 1966 while scientists were cleaning the cave.

To date, 230 figures have been recorded in the cave, and it is thought that more are still to be revealed. Font de Gaume holds over 200 polychrome paintings and is considered the best example of polychrome painting other than Lascaux, which is now closed to the public. The paintings in Font-de-Gaume include depictions of more than 80 bison, approximately 40 horse depictions, and more than 20 mammoth depictions.

We go into the cave as small group of about a dozen, lead by a guide who is ostensibly going to speak English. He doesn’t much and in the narrow passageways it’s quite difficult to see what he is referring too. It’s dingy inside. Light plays havoc with the paintings and he only has a small red beamed pointer to indicate the paintings. The cave is restricted to a limited number of small groups per day. A total of 160 people per day is all that is allowed. I’ve heard that this will soon be reduced to 70 or so. I expect one day soon the cave will be closed to the public. Perhaps they will make a replica as at Lascaux.

Once you get used to the dim light and the way the paintings are formed, using the rock itself to form features of the animals, it becomes easier to appreciate the beauty of them. It’s difficult not to remain sceptical of some of the fancy assumptions made about the people who painted them though and why.

Moist people are just stunned to see such work from ages past.

After our short visit we arrive back at the shed and peruse the merchandise. I bought a fridge magnet once. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean.

We hop back in the van and drive to the hotel in Les Eyzies. It’s right in the middle of the small town and we can settle down for a quiet evening. Jerome and Jerome are there to meet us. One of the Jeromes is an owner and the other just works there. I always like the happy way they greet us and help us get everyone to their rooms. Instead of eating altogether tonight the holiday ‘instructions’ inform them that they are ‘on there own’. It seems a bit cruel, but I suppose the idea is to give them a break from each other and regain some space. Paul and I give them an idea of the different places to eat in town. The cheap ones, the expensive one and the nice ones. We shall eat in the Cafe de Maire across the street. It’s cheap and cheerful and the food is good. Pave de Canard usually for me. A duck steak! I’ve been to this place many times and one of the reasons is it has a huge TV where we have often watched football, or more often, the Tour de France.

Before that however we slope off to our room for a lie down. It’s my turn to do the picnic dishes. I do this in the bath! Usually we make use of the kitchen facilities of wherever we are staying to do the washing-up but the kitchen staff at this hotel are a bit posh and seem reluctant to allow us to use the kitchen. The bath it is then. Fortunately the bathroom is large enough and the dishes are soon done and laying on a towel to drain off.

After a nap we drag ourselves out to the cafe to get some dinner. Nothing on the TV tonight so we sit out on the terrace. Sometimes we are joined by other guests but usually they go to one of the swankier places for a more private dinner. It’s a relaxing evening for us.

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.