The incredibly rich Dordogne Valley
The Dordogne Valley stands for picturesque France. Small villages, wedged between that famous river and steep cliffs. Castles and mansions, but also impressive caves. Not to mention the delectable cuisine and pleasant weather.
There are so many ways to experience this area. By foot, on a bike, and of course from the water. But I’m also going up to see it all from a different perspective. I might as well do it all while I’m here…
But first I’m checking out the Dordgone River. You can’t not. Paddling along it in a canoe is really the only way. Past cliffs, impressive lines of trees, imposing mansions and several castles.
I’m going with the flow. I’m taking it easy. I can do this for hours. Though I’m keen to try something new, so I get onto a Stand Up Paddle board, or SUP. My guide Philippe helps me find my balance, ‘Make sure your feet are wide, and your hips are loose.’ Oh, this is also a nice way to float along.
At least, at the start. But suddenly Philippe says: ‘Get ready, there are some rapids coming up.’ Wait, what? I’m standing on a wobbly surfboard, and keeping my balance has always been a bit of a challenge for me…
The first waves are fine. Though it must have been a funny sight to see my two-metre-tall frame trying to anticipate the movements of the water.
From the corner of my eye, I see some cyclists stop to look. Splash, I’m down. Thankfully, my guide falls off as well, and we have a laugh about our antics. The cyclists too, I notice.
I’m also going cycling. Many bike paths are right along the water, so the hills aren’t too bad. I get on my bike and cycle along winding roads, away from the tourist sites. I pass some stately country mansions, a tribute to the area’s rich past.
A terrace in the sunshine, what a delight. A perfect way to end a very exciting, wet but mostly relaxing day. I am completely satisfied. But what shall I do tomorrow? There’s so much more to do.
The advertisement catches my eye, especially the photos. Via Ferrata or Klettersteig: this means climbing and clambering along the face of cliffs or rocks. You have to support your own weight the whole way. The view around me is of a village with lovely houses and a castle. It’s surrounded by forests. A bit further along, a farm like a perfect painting in the landscape.
I have climbed along rocks like these a few times before, with steel cables as only support. It’s a great way to test my muscles. And my balance…again.
However, this protection system is different. Your carabiner slides over the cable alongside you, even across the anchoring points. I’m used to having two cables that you have to detach and re-attach at the next cable. That’s also one hundred percent safe, but this way is easier. And quicker.
I’m hanging off a cliff. My hands cling tight to metal grips. There’s a 30-metre drop below me. But I’m rewarded for my efforts with a sublime view. I can see the Dordogne River below me. I could stay like this a while and enjoy it. At least, for as long as my muscles hold out.
This Via Ferrata is new at the Jardin de Marqueyssac: a famous garden and chateau on the top of a cliff. This a great place to wander around and relax at the end of the day.
What I’m enjoying the most here, is how that which is created by man, and that which is created by Mother Earth meet in the middle and make something amazing. It’s a constant battle between human and nature.
It’s special that humans have been around in this area for tens of thousands of years. Or actually the Cro-Magnon humans, often known by the slightly denigrating name ‘neanderthal’: not particularly clever, who wear animal hides and are not very developed. At least, so we think…
I stayed at some special places during my trip. I can highly recommend these if you’re interested in discovering the area for yourself. They are:
B&B La Voie Verte in Carsac Aillac
B&B James et Samantha Parry in Espagnac
B&B Bella Vista in Lissac-sur-Couze
Hôtel Auberge de Castel Merle in Sergeac
But those who visit Lascaux realise there’s more to those early humans. Especially now that Lascaux IV has opened in 2017. It’s an exact copy of the original cave, but bigger than the first copy. The original cave is no longer open to public, because people’s breath deteriorates the paintings.
This is revelling in art. Art that’s 25.000 years old. Remarkable drawings, in several colours. Sometimes it’s painted, sometimes it’s done another way.
‘It’s “airbrushed”‘ says me guide Gwenn Rigal, when he sees me stare. ‘It’s sprayed on by blowing paint through the hollow of an animal bone.’ It has a remarkable effect. They also used the relief of the natural rock wall as well, for example to make an animal seem like it’s coming off the wall. It’s bizarrely beautiful.
Question marks. Those are the words that sum up Lascaux. Why did our ancestors make these? What do the thousands of drawings all mean? Are they ‘simply’ scenes from their everyday life? Why so many animals and so few landscapes?
You’ll see depictions of horses, and also aurochs, woolly mammoths, a rhino and an oryx. And it’s strange that there are no reindeer in the images, because it was the animals they hunted the most. That’s why Lascaux is magical: you leave with more questions than you came.
The next part is what I enjoyed the most: in a large hall you learn more about the animals, the artefacts found in the caves, and more. You can also see how some elements have be re-created. And there’s a common thread through the entire thing: how scientists are researching to find out about our long-gone history. It’s intriguing.
This is the valley of the Vézère, where this river flows into the Dordogne Valley. There are numerous other caves to discover here. With a a guide and a torch. I opt for a smaller cave: La Grotte du Sorcier in Le Bugue.
In this cave you can see one of the rare images depicting a human. It’s a stylised body with a long phallus and an interesting expression. It has the wondrous name ‘The sorcerer of St-Cirq’.
The caves and their stories. They give you an impression into a world that was completely different to ours. You need some imagination, and an open mind. But it’s wonderful when your ancestors amaze you like this, right?
Now that your mind has been inspired, it’s time for your body. I am asked if I’m interested in Trail Running. I’m not sure what it is, but I can take a guess. Though I can’t really picture it clearly.
It turns out to be quite a simple activity. ‘You only need shoes, pants and a shirt’ laughs my guide, who is just a touch too fit for my liking. It doesn’t take long before I realise he’s forgot one thing in that list: stamina.
Running through the forest I dodge rocks and crest hills. Downhill is easier. I’m allowed to walk up the hills ‘to take a break’. Not sure how walking up a hill is considered ‘a break’…
I easily get washed clean of my running sweat later that afternoon. I go canyoning at the Redenat Falls near Auriac, a waterfall I had never heard of before. A huge crevice opens up in the middle of the forest. That explains the name of this sport.
Once again I’m climbing and clambering around, but this time I’m mostly descending. Abseiling across, and often through, waterfalls, sliding over rocks, and catching my breath while I float in a river. I am exhausted but extremely content when I finally take of my wetsuit.
These past few days have been remarkable. Away from the daily grind. No worries in my head. All I think of are the waterfalls I’ve gone through, the mountain paths I’ve conquered and the pureness of Mother Nature. I should do this more often. Much more often.